Iowa prepares for a tough, evenly-matched Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship. David Scrivner/Iowa City Press-Citizen
Breaking down the key aspects of the Iowa-Michigan State matchup in Saturday's Big Ten Conference championship game (7:17 p.m. CT, Fox):
The running game
Iowa: All four running backs are healthy. The question is, how will Iowa use them? Expect Jordan Canzeri, LeShun Daniels, Akrum Wadley and Derrick Mitchell Jr. (as the third-down back) to play. Canzeri is probably going to be the main guy. But whoever carries, this is an essential piece of the Hawkeye game plan. Iowa averages 203.7 yards on the ground per game; the disciplined Spartans yield 118.2 – but have been getting better as the season progresses, having allowed less than 100 to the top two rushing teams in the Big Ten (Ohio State, Indiana). The Hawkeyes have been persistent and effective in running up the middle behind center Austin Blythe and guards Sean Welsh and Jordan Walsh (first-team all-Big Ten). Sophomore nose tackle Malik McDowell, a five-star recruit, will try to clog up that area. If Iowa can reel off 3-6 yards on first down, it'll keep the Michigan State defense guessing with each snap. "Against a team like that, you've got to stay disciplined," Spartans linebacker Riley Bullough said. "You've got to do your job, you've got to stay in your gap every play, because that's where they hurt people. I feel they kinda lull the other team to sleep and catch them in the wrong gaps, and that's when they gush them for those explosive gains."
Michigan State: Sophomore Gerald Holmes has become Michigan State's lead back after freshman L.J. Scott carried the load early in the season. Stopping the Spartans' running game, which has underwhelmed with an average of 4.0 yards a carry, is essential for the Iowa defense. “They don’t run a ton of stuff we haven’t seen this year. They just run it from a lot of different formations," Iowa linebacker Cole Fisher said. "They have a lot of shifts and motions to try to hide what they’re doing. They like to hit you with the play-action after that.” If Michigan State can be effective with the run – and Iowa has allowed 160.2 ground yards in the last five games after yielding 74.1 in the first seven – then it presents a ton of problems for the Hawkeyes. MSU quarterback Connor Cook is most effective off play-action, but if Iowa can force second- and third-and-longs, it'll increase the predictability of the Spartans' offense.
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The passing game
Iowa: Quarterback C.J. Beathard has not been relied upon to win a game with his powerful arm yet. But the junior is capable, and the circumstances surrounding this one might require his first 300-yard game for Iowa to win. Unfortunately for Iowa, Michigan State is as healthy as it has been in the secondary. But Iowa is averaging an efficient 7.8 yards per passing attempt, and if Beathard can get enough protection from his offensive line – which has been better in run blocking than the pass in 2015 – he could have a big game. "They're a great defense," first-team all-Big Ten guard Jordan Walsh said. "Their defensive line is huge, quick, fast." Look for MSU star defensive end Shilique Calhoun to move around against tackles Boone Myers and Cole Croston. Iowa receiver Tevaun Smith, who was limited with a knee injury in the middle of the season, could be in line for some deep targets for the Hawkeyes in a temperature-controlled setting.
Michigan State: Cook is almost certainly going to be the Big Ten first NFL first-round quarterback picked in more than two decades. The senior, who broke out on the college scene two years ago in a 2013 win at Kinnick Stadium, is accurate and dependable. But he's dealing with a right (throwing) shoulder injury that seemed to limit the depth of his passes. "We're not sure how healthy he is," Iowa linebacker Cole Fisher said, "but he's played extremely well." One of the night's key matchups is the Big Ten's top receiver (MSU's Aaron Burbridge, 1,158 yards) vs. the Big Ten's top defensive back (Iowa's Desmond King, eight interceptions). If King – who recorded two picks vs. the best receiver he's faced this year in Pittsburgh's Tyler Boyd – can play well, Iowa has a better chance to force punts.
The special teams
Iowa: This has been an area of focus for the Hawkeyes since January. King seems like he's been inches away from breaking a kick or punt return all season. Marshall Koehn can make or miss a field goal from any range, but in a dome setting he should be able to record touchbacks on most Iowa kickoffs. Punter Dillon Kidd got off to a strong start, but it seems like his distance has suffered as the season has progressed. Avoiding opponent big plays on special teams has been a priority, and it will be again in the biggest game of the season.
Michigan State: The Spartans haven't posed a threat in the return game – especially on punts, with a 2.8-yard average on returns. Punter Jake Hartbarger is probably their special-teams star, averaging 42.3 yards per attempt. Placekicker Michael Geiger is just 9-for-14 on field goals, including just 6-for-10 inside 40 yards.
Iowa: The Hawkeyes have thrived at playing with a chip on their shoulders all season. Nobody expected much more than an 8-4 season, let alone 12-0. Last week against five-win Nebraska, the unbeaten Hawkeyes were barely favored. And Saturday, Iowa enters as a 3.5-point underdog. Plain and simple, Iowa has had a magical season. Seven games have been on the line in the fourth quarter – Iowa State, Pittsburgh, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska – and Iowa has won them all. And as a reminder, New Kirk hasn't faked a field goal in the last 10 games. "We're going to have to play well and execute. We can't make many mistakes," Beathard said. "They're a good team. But I think we're a good team as well."
Michigan State: The Spartans practically get their mail at Lucas Oil Stadium in December. This is their third Big Ten championship appearance in the game's five-year history, including a win here over Ohio State in 2013. "This is the third time in five years that we have been able to go and play for a championship," coach Mark Dantonio said. "That can't hurt us. That can only help us." Michigan State is loaded with senior-laden talent. If Dantonio is going to get to the College Football Playoff, this is probably his best chance, especially with rival program Michigan on the rise. But for once his Spartans can't play the no-respect card that has led the program to five 11-win seasons in the last six years.
The Big Ten football championship will be decided in Indianapolis as Iowa takes on Michigan State.