As Austin Blythe enjoyed a holiday feast Saturday, he watched with family on TV as Iowa’s next Big Ten Championship Game opponent, Michigan State, was being finalized in a 55-16 pounding of Penn State.
“As soon as Michigan State did their job and put it away,” the Hawkeyes’ starting center said Monday, “I turned it to another game.”
On Saturday and in the film room, Blythe sees a team in green that might as well be wearing black and gold. In preparation for Saturday’s 7:17 p.m. championship game, the 12-0 Hawkeyes are in some ways looking in the mirror at the 11-1 Spartans.
“Two programs that like to play physical football, and they’re going to play the full 60 (minutes). And they’ll take you to overtime if you have to,” said Blythe, a nod to Iowa’s 19-16, double-overtime win in East Lansing, Mich., in his redshirt freshman year of 2012. “Two really good programs that respect each other and understand what they bring to the table and understand that it’s going to be a 60-minute fight.”
Both teams run a pro-style offense. Both run a 4-3 defense. And the statistical similarities are uncanny:
Iowa ranks third in the Big Ten at 33.7 points a game; Michigan State is fourth at 33.2.
Iowa is one spot ahead of the Spartans in scoring defense (18.7 points a game vs. 21.1), total offense (404.2 yards vs. 399.4) and total defense (324.2 vs. 331.7).
Michigan State is one spot ahead of Iowa in time of possession (33 minutes, 1 second per game vs. 32:13).
Iowa had 49 red-zone trips with an 87.8-percent scoring rate; Michigan State has 47 with an 85.1-percent rate.
Iowa allows opponents to convert 35.6 percent of their third-down plays; Michigan State allows 35.8 percent.
The teams are dead-even in turnovers gained (25) and turnovers lost (11) for a plus-14 margin.
Both teams have been penalized exactly 61 times.
Michigan State is a 3.5-point favorite to earn what is essentially an automatic spot in the Dec. 31 College Football Playoff semifinals.
“They do a good job, lining the ball up, running the ball at you, wanting to pound the ball with the run game,” Spartans defensive lineman Shilique Calhoun said. “I think our offense does the same thing. We want to pound you with the run game and then open up the pass.”
There’s this similarity, too: Both teams are guided by a quarterback playing hurt – Michigan State with Connor Cook (shoulder), Iowa with C.J. Beathard (groin).
On a conference call Monday with key players from both teams, mutual respect was evident.
Cook, the likely first-team all-Big Ten Conference pick, said of first-year starter Beathard: “Protects the football, makes big-time throws in big-time moments when they need them. He just has that level of confidence you want in a quarterback.”
These are probably the two best QBs in the Big Ten, but the point of attack is where the matchup will likely be decided.
Michigan State and Iowa were both named one of five finalists for the Joe Moore Award, given to the nation’s best offensive line. What a shock that the Spartans (Jack Allen) and Hawkeyes (Blythe) are anchored by all-Big Ten centers.
“They’re a very tough football team. They’re very football sound,” Allen said of Iowa. “You don’t see a lot of guys out of place. There’s always guys holding their gaps down. They’re just a smart, disciplined football team.”
Neither team is going to pull any surprises, either. (Let’s for a minute forget about the successful fake punt Michigan State pulled in a 26-14 win at Iowa in 2013.)
“Not too many curve balls that are going to be thrown,” Iowa linebacker Cole Fisher said, “unless they come out with something new this week.”
You have to look closely to find differences. Iowa’s defense has been more susceptible in recent weeks than Michigan State’s (which, two weeks ago, held Ohio State to five first downs). But the Hawkeyes have been better in the running game (4.8 yards a carry to Michigan State’s 4.0).
It’ll come down to physical football and execution. The last team standing goes to the national semifinals in either the Cotton or Orange Bowl on New Year's Eve.
“We know in order to have a chance to beat them,” Beathard said, “we’re going to have to play our best football.”
BIG TEN TITLE GAME
Who: Iowa (12-0) vs. Michigan State (11-1)
When, where: 7:17 p.m. CT Saturday, Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis, Ind.
TV: Fox (Announcers: Gus Johnson, Joel Klatt)
The line: Michigan State is favored by 3.5
Tickets: The game is sold out (66,700 capacity)