Iowa will play in front of a blackout crowd this weekend at home against Michigan State. Much like the crowd will be opposite in color compared to last week’s whiteout, the Hawkeyes will be looking to have the opposite kind of performance compared to last week’s showing. The Spartans are in town with interim head coach Harlon Barnett. Mel Tucker was put on leave on September 10th and was formally fired on Wednesday of this week. The staff also brought back former Spartan head coach Mark Dantonio. He was assigned an unspecified assistant role, intended, in all likelihood, to serve as a point of stability within the program.
On the field, the Spartans are 2-2 overall. They’ll be looking to find their footing after suffering back-to-back blowout losses. Both of which they scored in the single digits. The matchup is one that, on paper, Iowa should have an advantage. Michigan State is giving up 5.75 yards per play this season and is last in the Big Ten (114th nationally) in points scored against Power Five opponents. Their production has taken a major drop-off since the staff shake-up in early September and since the beginning Power Five play. Iowa’s defense will present problems for the Spartans this weekend, while Cade McNamara and the offense will look to bounce back.
Michigan State was hit hard by the transfer portal this offseason. Auburn came and got their starting quarterback, and each of their two best receivers is gone. One went to the NFL, and the other is filling the stat sheet at Florida State. After a couple of convincing wins against Central Michigan and Richmond, Michigan State’s struggles began to show. Their performance against Washington and Maryland was a cause for concern, and the coaching staff changes prior to those two games did not help the situation. The theme thus far for the Spartans has been their struggles since that September 10th date.
Barnett announced this week that Noah Kim will continue to be the starter at quarterback on Saturday. In their first two games, Kim was averaging 280 yards per game with two touchdowns to zero interceptions. Since then, Kim’s average dropped to 163 yards per game with less than a 50% completion percentage. He has one touchdown to three interceptions in that span. Freshmen Katin Houser and Sam Leavitt have been rotated in, and we expect them to be again this weekend.
Spartan Running Back
Offensively, the workhorse has been Nate Carter at running back. Last week against Maryland, he had a career-high 24 total touches, with 19 coming on the ground. He had over 100 all-purpose yards and was asked to do a lot. Carter has 369 yards with eight 10-plus yard plays on the season. He’s been productive behind a line of scrimmage that’s been a weak point of their offense this season. They were decent in their first two games, but since Power Five play began, they have struggled. The offensive line allowed eight quarterback pressures in the first two weeks, and then 21 in their next two games combined. Washington and Maryland were getting in the backfield consistently, and their defenses rank 75th and 48th nationally, respectively.
Iowa Wide Receiver Involvement
This season, just three Hawkeye wide receivers have recorded a catch for a grand total of 14 receptions. This is comparable to the Service Academies which are known for keeping the ball on the ground. Army has six wide receivers with a catch this year for a total of 27 receptions. The Naval Academy has five receivers with a reception, and Air Force has three. We’d like to say that this Michigan State defense is one Iowa can begin to involve the wide receivers, but they have yet to show that’s even a goal of theirs.
In the first three weeks, Iowa wide receivers had four receptions total in each game. At Penn State, they had two total. Hawkeye wideouts had 77 yards in week one, but 65 of them came on two plays. Since the opening week, the receivers have yet to eclipse 30 yards combined in a single game. We knew they wouldn’t be able to find their stride in a hostile environment last weekend. But even at home against a Western Michigan defense that has allowed 8.6 yards per pass attempt (116th nationally), Iowa struggled. In that game, McNamara completed 11 passes for 133 yards with two interceptions, averaging 6.0 yards per attempt. Until this Iowa offense shows they are going to work the ball to receivers and have success doing so, we’re not going to predict that to be a part of their path to victory on a week-to-week basis.
If the Hawkeyes have Big Ten West aspirations, getting their wide receivers involved is going to need to be a part of the equation. Luke Lachey is out for the year, and Erick All is not the only pass-catcher on this roster with a pulse. Seth Anderson has been exciting in a limited sample set, especially with his route running this year. We’ve witnessed him generate large windows of separation on multiple occasions. He has just nine targets. Since returning from injury in 2022, Diante Vines has not recorded a dropped pass, but just 26 targets. Nico Ragaini is a veteran, and Iowa landed a highly-touted young receiver in Kaleb Brown this offseason. Brown has two targets and zero receptions to date. The Hawkeyes have playmakers, they just have not shown intent to get them the ball.
What We’d Like to See
Michigan State allowed 536 passing yards against Washington, and 223 passing yards against Maryland. On the year, they’ve given up 243 passing yards per game with an opponent success rate of 40.9% against the pass, 66th nationally. In this situation, Iowa should look to find something in their pass game. It’s an opportunity to scheme up plays to their wide receivers who have been massively under-utilized this season.
If they were to do this and find some success, it would, at a minimum, build McNamara’s confidence in throwing the ball as conference play continues. It could also help to open up the run game. Michigan State is 44th nationally in success rate against the run. That’s better than Iowa’s run defense to this point in the season. And based on Iowa’s lack of passing success thus far, it’s likely Michigan State will be loading up the box to force Iowa to the air. The Hawkeyes need to come out and throw the ball to their receivers on Saturday.
What We Will See
Until proven otherwise, Iowa is going to play to win football games with their defense, special teams execution, and their run game. Michigan State’s secondary presents an opportunity for Iowa to design plays for their wide receivers. But it’s not likely that phase of the game will be impactful because we have yet to see that be the case this season or for the entirety of 2022.
On Saturday, the story will probably be the same. Iowa will again be without Kaleb Johnson and Jaziun Patterson in the backfield. Leshon Williams will start with Kamari Moulton and Terrell Washington Jr. in the rotation. Regardless, the Hawkeyes will likely put the ball on the ground and re-establish their foundation with the run. Michigan State’s run defense is their strong point on that side of the ball. But they do rank 70th nationally against Power Five opponents, allowing 158 yards per game on the ground. There’s a window there for Iowa to find success on the ground this weekend, but it could be amplified if they work the passing game more often than not.
Defense and Special Teams
A lot of national prognosticators have suggested Iowa’s defense is slipping. While they aren’t top two like last year, evidence points to that not being the case. Jay Higgins finished with a career-high 18 tackles against Penn State, and the defense created six tackles for loss. They allowed just 10 points in the first half against Penn State despite being on the field for 48 plays and more than 20 minutes of game time. Phil Parker will be looking to make a statement against the Spartans to set that narrative straight.
The offense overshadowed Tory Taylor last weekend as well. He was excellent against Penn State and has been all year. Taylor punted the ball seven times for 366 yards in Happy Valley, pinning four of them inside the 20-yard line, and two inside the five. Penn State’s average starting field position was their own 29-yard line.
Getting You Set: Iowa vs. Michigan State, Prediction
In a blackout on Saturday night, the Hawkeyes will look to get things straight on both sides of the ball. Michigan State’s defense presents an opportunity for Iowa’s offensive play calling. The defense is looking at a statement game to regain some respect. The fact of the matter is, Iowa still has a chance to claim a division title. They can still win a lot of football games this fall and compete for the conference. One game last week doesn’t define a season. Rather, it can serve as a turning point to get the ship pointed back in the right direction.
Iowa – 24
Michigan State – 6