Every so often, a college football game earns the title of “Game of the Century.” Michigan State-Notre Dame in 1966, Texas-USC in 2005, or LSU-Alabama in 2019 all come to mind. High stakes, legendary performances, and sheer excellence in every facet.
This Saturday’s game at Kinnick Stadium between MSU and Iowa will not be a part of that list.
After a tumultuous couple of weeks in East Lansing, the Spartans get to escape the bubble for the first time of the season, taking on a Hawkeye team licking its wounds after a 31-0 drubbing at the hands of Penn State.
Just who are these Hawkeyes, and do the Spartans have a chance to get win #3?
Iowa comes into Saturday’s game at 3-1, winning their opener against Utah State by 10. In their annual rivalry matchup against Iowa State, they took care of business 20-13, and they dispatched the Western Michigan Broncos 41-10.
Then they went to Happy Valley.
After a competitive first half, Penn State scored 3 touchdowns in the second half. There’s no shame in giving that up to Penn State - Drew Allar looks like a top tier quarterback, and they’ve cleared 30 points in every game they’ve played this season, 3 of which have been against Power 5 competition.
Iowa’s problem is that they had, and continue to have, no counterpunch.
Anyone who’s followed college football is well aware of the drama surrounding Iowa’s offense. It’s the perfect combination of nepotism and incompetence, and serves as a sharp contrast with the program’s history of producing excellent defenses.
Iowa’s Offensive Coordinator is Brian Ferentz, the son of Head Coach Kirk Ferentz, the dean of college football coaches. Brian, the former offensive line coach for the Hawkeyes, was elevated to OC in 2017, and the ensuing years have been fraught with controversy on and off the field, as Brian was part of the racism and bullying scandal that ended strength coach Chris Doyle’s career.
The Ferentz philosophy is old-school - run a pro style system, focus on running the football, controlling the clock, minimizing errors, and setting the tone of the game. As time goes by, this notion gets more outlandish as the game moves forward, especially when you don’t have elite talent in key positions.
As the college game advances, Iowa sits somewhere in the early aughts at best.
After last season’s abysmal offensive output, Iowa sought help from the transfer portal, and seemed to have gotten that help from Ann Arbor. Cade McNamara, fully supplanted by JJ McCarthy at Michigan, transferred to Iowa along with his teammate, tight end Erick All. They added multiple players on the offensive line, including Daijon Parker from Saginaw Valley State. They plucked Kaleb Brown and Seth Anderson from Ohio State and Charleston Southern respectively. What have they gotten to show for it? Basically nothing.
Iowa’s 2023 offense is worse than their putrid 2022 offense. After Week 4, they are 129th in total offense, just 4 spots above rock bottom, and this includes a 41 point showing against Western Michigan. For reference, MSU is 80th, and Washington - MSU’s Week 3 opponent, leads all FBS squads.
The passing game, expected to be much improved by upgrading to McNamara, has regressed. The Hawkeyes average 127 yards per game passing. Tight Ends Luke Lachey and Erick All have been leading the team in targets. Lachey, the team’s leading receiver, suffered a sigificant injury against Penn State and is expected to miss the rest of the season. The receivers aren’t seeing targets, and haven’t performed when given the opportunity.
At running back, the Hawkeyes are banged up, with 2 of their top 3 tailbacks out for this week. Kaleb Johnson and Jaziun Patterson missed the Penn State game and remain out. Leshon Williams will be the lead back, as he is the only non-freshman expected to suit up on Saturday. Terrell Washington and Kamari Moulton will be the other backs ready to go against MSU.
Against every Iowa game this season is the notorious “Drive for 325,” where in order to keep his job, Brian Ferentz’s offense has to score 325 points on the season, averaging 25 per game. It’s not off to a good start. Outside of the WMU game, the Hawkeyes have fallen well short, including the program’s first shutout since 2000.
This MSU team will not want to be the squad that boosts that average.
While one half of the Iowa football program is engulfed in flames and surrounded by confusion, the other half is basically stable.
Phil Parker is in his 12th year as Iowa’s DC, and has been with the Iowa program since 1999, coaching DBs for 13 years in Iowa City before taking over the entire defensive unit. Parker’s career began in 1987 as a graduate assistant at MSU under George Perles.
Parker’s zone defense out of a Quarters set has been a staple, and it has led to some tremendous DB play, where the generally underappreciated backs can make aggressive plays on the ball while preventing receivers from breaking big plays. Iowa’s defense has, prior to the Penn State game, been one of the best teams in the country in terms of scoring defense. Going into last week, they were only giving up an average of 12 points per game, albeit against middling competition.
With 28 game starter on the defensive line Noah Shannon being suspended for the season in the rash of Iowa gambling violations, nobody has stepped in to take his place. Joe Evans and Deontae Craig have both registered sacks, but have little else to show. Linebackers Jay Higgins and Nick Jackson lead the team in tackles.
The Spartans will have their hands full with Cooper DeJean, an extremely talented DB plucked from Ida Grove, Iowa. Fellow DBs Sebastian Castro and Xavier Nwankpa have interceptions this season. The Hawkeyes haven’t logged flashy numbers in terms of takeaways or sacks, but their results outside of Happy Valley show that they’re a perfectly capable unit.
How worried should we be?
Well, it’s a difficult question - Is worry really an emotion that we should have about this year’s team?
Against this Iowa team, MSU has a chance. Most sportsbooks have the Over/Under at 36.5, which feels about 30 points too high. This is going to be an ugly football game. Noah Kim is set to start at quarterback for the Spartans, and based on his mistake-laden performance against Maryland, there is cause for concern there. Unlike Maryland, unless Iowa’s defense cashes in on their takeaways, the Hawkeyes won’t be able to make MSU pay like the Terps did.
Kinnick Stadium at night can be a doozy. Iowa’s defense will probably make MSU’s offense look bad.
And yet. Because of the untenable situation Kirk Ferentz has foisted upon his team, the program that he built, the Spartans have a legitimate opportunity.