No. 13 Michigan State faces road test at Iowa
No. 13 Michigan State can make things a lot simpler in the Big Ten on Saturday.
Beat Iowa on the road and the Legends Division title is Michigan State's to lose.
Of course, the Spartans (7-2, 4-1 Big Ten) haven't won at Iowa since 1989 and they have yet to prove they can be as good on the road as they are in East Lansing, Mich.
The Spartans will try to snap a seven-game losing streak in Iowa City and redeem themselves following losses at Notre Dame and Nebraska earlier this season.
''You have to play through the tough times. You have to play through the storms,'' Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. ''The more experienced you are at handling these things, the more opportunities you have to go in, the better you should become. So we should be getting there.''
It's easy to forget that Iowa (6-3, 3-2) control its own destiny in the Legends Division, with games left against Michigan State and at Nebraska to close the season. Coach Kirk Ferentz isn't even pondering such a possibility.
There's a reason for that.
The Hawkeyes are 6-0 at home but aren't far removed from a shocking 22-21 loss at Minnesota, one of only two wins for the Gophers this season. Though Iowa bounced back with a 24-16 win over No. 22 Michigan a week ago, Ferentz knows his Hawkeyes are vulnerable to a bad outing if they aren't completely focused on the Spartans.
''We're really not worried about division standings right now or Big Ten standings. A week ago it didn't look like we were going to a bowl game to a lot of people,'' Ferentz said. ''If we don't play well, it'll be a tough day, I know that.''
This matchup will feature two of the league's best quarterbacks in Michigan State's Kirk Cousins and Iowa's James Vandenberg. But it figures to be more of a classic Big Ten slugfest than a shootout.
The Spartans have the league's top defense, allowing less than 250 yards a game, and have been equally strong against the run and the pass.
''They played the run really well. They're going to press you up in the pass game every play and not give you anything easy. They're really going to make you put a drive together. They're not going to give you that home run play to score,'' Vandenberg said.
But Michigan State has yet to show it can score on the road. The Spartans had just 13 in that loss to the Fighting Irish, 10 in a close win at Ohio State and were held to just a field goal in a 24-3 loss at Nebraska two weeks ago.
''On the road we've seen three pretty good defenses. We critique everything that we do,'' Dantonio said. ''This is a game of chess. It's a game of execution. It's a game of schematics, but it's also a game of physical dominance too. So we've got to try to right that situation.''
Against Michigan, the Hawkeyes shelved the no-huddle offense they went to earlier this season when bruising sophomore back Marcus Coker and the running game had yet to hit their stride. Coker, who has blossomed in the past month to take over the league's rushing lead with 1,101 yards, will see a physical Spartans defense.
Michigan State's long losing streak at Iowa dates back to the days of former coaches George Perles. None of those were as painful as last year's 37-6 blowout to the Hawkeyes, which knocked the Spartans out of the national title hunt.
Dantonio, sensing the pressure his players are under, barred interviews with them this week. They'll have their say on the field.
A win would put only struggling Indiana and Northwestern between the Spartans and a date in the Big Ten's first title game. It would also help wipe away 22 years of frustration for Michigan State and 12 months of angst.
''We've got 40 players who last season went out there with us when we were undefeated and I think ranked fifth in the nation at that point in time, so didn't respond very well. So we've got some things to prove,'' Dantonio said.