Happy Thursday Spartans! In a couple of days, MSU plays its first road game of the season, as well as its first game after the official termination of Coach Mel Tucker. Last week, we saw some glimmers of hope in our team but obviously there are still many questions surrounding them that hopefully get answered in a positive way very soon. For now, let’s turn our attention to this weekend’s opponent, the Iowa Hawkeyes. Jonah Parker of Black Heart Gold Pants answered some questions for us.
TOC: After scoring 24, 20, and 41 in winning your first 3 games, Iowa lost 31-0 at Penn State last week. Did that result come as a surprise to Hawkeye fans? What do you think is the real version of this team?
JP: Honestly, yes and no. Was it a surprise that Iowa looked absolutely atrocious on offense on Saturday night? No. You won’t find a single Hawkeye fan who will ever be surprised when the Iowa offense looks like it has no idea what’s happening as long as Brian Ferentz is calling plays and Kirk Ferentz is setting the guard rails.
However, it’s been 23 years since Iowa has been shut out in a game and it may be another 23 until it happens again. The Hawkeyes lost the turnover battle 4-0 on Saturday night. I’ve not seen the stat, but I would venture to guess Ferentz-coached teams have lost the turnover battle by that wide of a margin maybe 5 times in 24 season and I can’t imagine they came close to winning in any of them.
The real version of this team is an offense that looks lost 95% of the time, but not one that typically turns the ball over more than once in a game. The entire philosophy is built on not turning it over and winning the field position game enough times in a row to back itself into points. That is largely what we saw the first two weeks before Iowa ran the ball down a not very good Utah State team’s throat in week three.
TOC: What were the expectations for Cade McNamara coming out of the transfer portal? What are people saying after 4 games? Is he better or worse than expected?
JP: I’d be lying if I said expectations weren’t high. McNamara looked good at Michigan and given Iowa was a Cooper DeJean injury against Nebraska away from a second straight Big Ten West title last year, Hawkeye fans felt the improvement needed on offense to compete for the West against his year was small.
We asked our community their expectations ahead of the season and most people were calling for 9+ wins. Virtually nobody expected fewer than 7 wins this year. I think if we re-ran that poll this week, you might see a 50-50 split and the reason is entirely the offense.
Now, that’s not just McNamara. He has been fine for the most part. But he has been injured since fall camp and that has really limited his mobility and the playbook (which was already a fraction of the size of any other team above a JV level). He’s shown more accuracy than Spencer Petras (again, low bar) and infinitely more pocket presence. But the impact of that is severely limited by lackluster offensive line play and that putrid playcalling.
TOC: What is a name that fans of Iowa’s opponents should know but do not yet?
JP: A name I’ll toss out there this week is Kaleb Brown. He’s a WR transfer from Ohio State who has been completely and totally absent thus far in the season. A number being heavily scrutinized across the fanbase this week is 35. As in 35 total targets for Iowa wide receivers through four games. That’s a stupidly low number.
Another number: 0. As in zero catches for Brown, who had high hopes given his pedigree and the massive void of talent in the position group at Iowa. I expect Brian Ferentz to make a point of getting Iowa WRs the ball this week and Kaleb Brown seems like the top priority given he is far and away the best athlete in the group. Scheming WRs open has seemed impossible under Brian, but Brown is capable of actually getting open on his own.
TOC: Iowa has become famous for its defense these last few years and holding many opponents to low scores. Tell us about this year’s defense. What is the base formation? What level is the strength of the defense? Who is the player that MSU’s offense should be staying away from the most?
JP: Iowa’s defense is Iowa’s defense under coordinator Phil Parker. You’re going to see a base 4-3 cover 2 shell whenever there are two backs or two tight ends on the field. Whenever the Spartans go to 10 or 11 personnel, Iowa is going to go to their base 4-2-5 package and sub out the third linebacker for what Parker calls the “cash”, which is a hybrid safety-linebacker. In the past, this spot has been filled by guys like Geno Stone or Amani Hooker - both of whom are now playing safety in the NFL. Iowa is going to stay in their base zone coverage regardless of whether the 11th player on the field is a linebacker or the “cash.”
That back seven has really started to show themselves as the strength of the defense. We knew the defensive backs were poised to be good coming into the year, but most Hawkeye fans expected the front four to be a force. They have not.
The Hawkeyes are really struggling to generate pressure up front with just three sacks through four games. They’ve also looked soft against the run. The loss of Noah Shannon to the gambling scandal has proven very impactful in the middle of that front and we have yet to see anyone step up at defensive tackle to give Iowa’s edge rushers a clean look.
Thankfully, Iowa has gotten a ton of production out of their linebackers. That was a concern entering the year after losing All-American Jack Campbell to the Lions, but senior Jay Higgins is leading the conference with 50 tackles already while former All-ACC linebacker and Virginia transfer Nick Jackson is currently 7th with 36 tackles and one of Iowa’s three sacks on the year.
In the secondary, I expect Michigan State to pick on corner Jermari Harris. He served a two-game suspension for his involvement in the gambling ordeal and has looked pretty suspect upon his return. That’s in part due to every quarterback to-date completely avoiding Cooper DeJean’s half of the field.
TOC: What is the most important thing Iowa needs to do this Saturday to pick up the win?
JP: We’ve sort of come full circle here because the single most important thing for Iowa this week and every week is to win the turnover battle. If the Iowa offense can just avoid turning the ball over, they will be in every game (17 of Penn State’s 31 points came off of turnovers in week 4 while Iowa’s only real chance at points was foiled by a redzone fumble in the first quarter which took at least 3 points away).
There is a reason Hawkeye fans and Kirk Ferentz only half joke when saying punting is winning. If the offense can simply get to a punt, they’ve have given the defense a chance to win the game.
TOC: Bonus question: Predict the final score of this game.
JP: I’ve not watched enough of Michigan State to really get a great feel for how they will try to attack this Iowa defense, but I suspect we see Iowa do what they do and lull the Spartans to sleep until they get impatient and turn the ball over taking a shot (again, worth noting the way Penn State found their success was not taking a single shot with their only “explosive” play being a 19-yard run in the 3rd quarter). I expect the Iowa offense to show some signs of life because that’s the pattern we’ve seen over the last few years - Iowa looks like garbage, there is uproar, they go completely out of character and “prove” they have some life left.
I’m probably setting myself up for yet another disappointment, but I’ll say Iowa wins and actually covers thanks to a defensive score.
Iowa 27, MSU 13
TOC: Non-related bonus question: After selecting Jack Campbell and Sam Laporta in the last draft, are many Iowa fans becoming Detroit Lions fans now?
JP: I’m not sure how many Hawkeyes actually changed fandom, but I will say there are certainly a lot of us who find themselves at least watching Detroit and rooting for some success. I would caveat that by saying a good chunk of the student body and alumni base is from or in the Chicagoland area and thus we tend to have a lot of Bears (but also lots of Vikings and Packers) fans. I would suspect those folks are a little less excited to see Detroit looking like a real threat to win the north. Those of us who grew up Rams fans (RIP St. Louis) and got in on the ground floor of Sam LaPorta on our dynasty teams are certainly cheering for the Liowans.
TOC thanks Jonah for his help with this article. As always, we hope your prediction is wrong.