October 4, 2013

Big Ten opener will tell a lot

EAST LANSING - The Michigan State football team will be looking to avoid a collision course with deja vu when they face Iowa on the road in the team's Big Ten opener at noon (ESPN2) on Saturday.

Last season, the Spartans entered Big Ten play with a 3-1 record and a loss to Notre Dame before opening conference play at home against Ohio State.

MSU suffered a one-point loss against the Buckeyes and went on to lose three of their first four Big Ten games en route to a 7-6 season that required a serious gut check down he stretch just to keep its bowl bid streak alive.

MSU (3-1) opens its bid to get back to the top of the Legends Division with many of the same scenarios that accompanied the team into Big Ten play last year - a loss to Notre Dame, a new quarterback and an offense that has still has questions to be answered in the passing game.

"It's very important because it's the first (Big Ten) game, and it sort of sets the tone for you. Especially when you're going away (and) playing in a tough environment,'' MSU coach Mark Dantonio said. "(This) sort of begins to set the table for you as a Big Ten contender and in the Legends Division.

Last season, the Spartans had the luxury of falling back on All-Big Ten running back Le'Veon Bell when the offense stalled and needed a big play.

Bell has moved on to the NFL and is making plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

That means the Spartans are going to need a couple of new catalysts on offense if they are going to get their conference season started on a positive note with a victory in Iowa City.

And from the looks of it, that positive note is going to require some upgraded offensive performances. Not just the ones that MSU exhibited in its first four contests, where the only time the team has exhibited any strength and consistency on offense was when they blew out Youngstown State, an FBS opponent, 55-17.

But consistent ones that prove the team will be in the Big Ten race throughout the entire portion of its final eight games.

Becaue other than that offensive outburst, which was supposed to strengthen the confidence of the entire Spartans' offensive unit, the defense has carried MSU or put the offense in prime positions to come away points.

That is not a diet the Spartans can survive and thrive on for the rest of the season.

"We've obviously got to score more points. I don't think there is any question about that.,'' Dantonio said. "There is no question that explosive plays are a factor, and we're trying to create them and work towards them. But I think our players are very capable of being able to make those plays.''

That means newly-minted starting sophomore quarterback Connor Cook, who earned the job after a feverish four-way battle, is going to have to start making more plays with his arm if the Spartans expect to escape the Children of the Corn at Kinnick Stadium with the program's 20th win against the Hawkeyes in 45 meetings.

While history says MSU has a chance - the Spartans, who have lost 10 of the last 15 meetings with Iowa, last won in Iowa City as recently as 2011 - the Hawkeyes are 13-9-1 against MSU on their home turf.

Recent history also says it will be a close game.

Since Mark Dantonio's arrival, four of MSU's previous six meetings with Iowa (4-1) have been decided by seven points or less, with two of those contests being decided in overtime in 2007 and 2012.

Dantonio is just 2-4 against the Hawkeyes.

While MSU will need Cook, who enters Saturday's game a respectable 43-of-81 for 411 yards and 5 TDs against no interceptions, to show some noticeable growth and maturity under center, the Spartans do have enough weapons to get the job done on offense.

Juniors Jeremy Langford and Nick Hill have been strong and dependable in the running game, with Langford leading the way with 268 yards, a 4.6 yards a carry average and four touchdowns.

That coupled with the emergence of sophomore wide receiver Macgarrett Kings, who leads a hard-to-figure-out wide receiving group with 13 catches for 136 yards and two scores, gives MSU some competent weapons.

Especially when you consider that all of this is being done with the help of a veteran offensive line, which features as many as three 5th-year starters led by Blake Treadwell, Fou Fonoti and Dan France.

MSU's transition into a smoother offensive flow won't be made easy by a Hawkeyes team whose defense has helped right the ship after an opening game three-point loss to MAC foe Northern Illinois.

The Hawkeyes have won four straight, including easy wins over Western Michigan and Minnesota in it last two games in which they have only surrendered an average of five points a game.

Leading the way for the Iowa's defense is senior weakside linebacker Anthony Hitchens.

Hitchens, who has 47 tackles, including 4.5 for loss, heads a trio of senior linebackers that many consider the best in the Big Ten.

Joining Hitchens on a defense that is surrendering just 15 points a game and 79.2 rushing yards a contest, are outside linebacker Christian Kirksey and middle backer James Morris.

Kirksey has 35 tackles, while Morris, the Big Ten's reigning Defensive Player of the Week, has 31 stops, which include four for loss and two interceptions.

This trio heads an Iowa defense that is averaging two picks and 4.4 tackles for loss a game, and features 11 players that have accumulated double-digit tackles.

Senior cornerback B.J. Lowery is Iowa top guy in the secondary with three picks, two of which he has returned for touchdowns.

While Iowa's defense is no slouch, the Spartans will step onto Iowa's field turf with a ridiculously good defense of its own.

Led by the 24 tackles each of senior linebacker Denicos Allen and junior safety Kurtis Drummond the Spartans are giving up just 13.2 points a game, 58.2 rushing yards and 188.8 yards of total offense.

They looked good last time out and they're giving up a ridiculously small number of yards per game rushingwise right now; I think it's under 60,'' Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "When you watch film, they're playing with confidence, and they have great senior leadership and veteran leaders. They have a tough football team (and) it's going to be a challenge for us.''

The Spartans, who have scored four defensive touchdowns this season ,are anchored on defense by middle linebacker and senior captain Max Bullough, who comes into Saturday's game third on the team in tackles with 22 for unit that has 24 tackles for loss, including nine sacks, and four interceptions.

While Allen and Drummond top the Spartans in tackles, it's Bullough that on the mind of Ferentz.

"Max played really well three years ago as a first-year guy and that's hard to do. He plays at a high level, and has, and continues to,'' Ferentz said. "My guess is he will finish this year the same way. He's just a really good player.''

While all these numbers for both defenses translate into a low-scoring affair, the Hawkeyes have some proven and explosive offensive contributors that could give MSU's defense fits.

Sophomore QB Jake Rudock has thrown for 961 and six TDs but has also thrown four picks.

When Rudock hands the ball off, its to the Hawkeyes bulldozing junior running back Mark Weisman.

Weisman has gained 615 yards on 119 carries and scored three touchdowns behind an o-line that features two seniors and is lead by three-time letterwinner Brett Van Sloten at right tackle.

"He's been, I think, especially poised. He's been composed with what he's been able to do,'' Dantonio said of Rudock. "He can run with it if he gets in trouble. He doesn't make a lot of mistakes. (He's) a gamer with a good arm and he's got good weapons.''

Van Sloten heads and offensive line that features three 300 pounders and a left tackle that tips the scales at 315.

"When you look at Iowa, the first thing you're always going to look at is their offensive line. Coach Ferentz is an offensive line coach by trade, his son is the offensive line coach there (and) they do an outstanding job. They're tough, extremely disciplined and they're going to get on you and that's the first thing we have to be able to do is beat them.''

The real star of Iowa's offense is Michigan native and junior wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley.

The 6-foot, 205 pound speedster, who is one of five players on Iowa's roster from Michigan, is the Hawkeyes' go-to guy when they need a big play.

So far this season, he has 26 catches for 225 yards and one score, and has returned two punts for touchdowns.

Outstanding punt returner. (They've) had a lot of success with that.,'' Dantonio said. "Kevonte (Martin-Manley) is very, very good.''

WHAT TO WATCH FOR:

MSU: You hate to focus on one player as being the key to a team's momentum and success on offense but Martin-Manley deserves that kind of attention. When you have a player of his caliber, who can change the course of a game in one play, it is paramount that the Spartans don't allow the wide receiver to single-handedly change the course of Saturday's game in Iowa's favor.

IOWA: The Hawkeyes best players have to be at their best on offense. Rudock has to be a top notch game manager, Wesiman must be productive out of the backfield and Martin-Manley has to provide a spark. In a game where both team's defenses will determine the outcome, the Hawkeyes can't afford turnovers or execution miscues because MSU's defense has already proven that they can turn those into points.

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