Two weeks into the abbreviated Big Ten season, it's safe to say that both the Michigan State Spartans and Iowa Hawkeyes are off to up-and-down starts. Now each team enters Saturday's matchup at Kinnick Stadium badly needing a win for bowl positioning.
Michigan State did a 180-degree turn on its season last Saturday. After giving the ball away seven times in the season opener against Rutgers, the Spartans did not turn over the ball against rival Michigan. Freshman wideout Ricky White performed in the fashion befitting a future all-Big Ten candidate. He contributed eight receptions for 196 yards and a touchdown.
Iowa has dropped its first two games by a combined margin of five points. Last week against Northwestern, the Hawkeyes recovered two fumbles in the Wildcats' territory and converted those into first-half touchdowns. However, Iowa threw two interceptions in the second half. Northwestern used the first to score the game-clenching touchdown. The second let the Wildcats run out the final minute of the game.
Iowa leads the all-time series 23-22-2, and Iowa holds a 13-10-1 edge in Iowa City. Michigan State has won the last three meetings, with their last game coming in 2017.
Michigan State at Iowa
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 7 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Iowa -6.5
When Michigan State Has the Ball
Rutgers' defense bullied Michigan State's offensive line in the season-opener. The Scarlet Knights sacked Rocky Lombardi five times. They recorded 19 tackles for a loss in total. The Spartans rushed the ball 39 times for only 50 yards. No Spartan scored a touchdown on the ground.
The next week in Ann Arbor, Michigan State found ways to protect its quarterback and clear the way for the running backs. The Spartans had 38 carries for 126 yards. The line only allowed two tackles for a loss and no sacks. Will the Spartans' offensive line maintain its improvement from their first two games?
Some Spartans benefited from the line's amelioration. Jordan Simmons had 14 carries in both games, and he improved his output from 43 to 55 yards. Lombardi lost four yards on seven rushing attempts versus the Scarlet Knights then gained 19 yards on five attempts against the Wolverines. Additionally, Lombardi threw 11 fewer passes but accrued 13 more passing yards and still had three touchdown passes in both games.
When Iowa Has the Ball
Iowa has stumbled after halftime in its first two games. The Hawkeyes have as many second-half turnovers as they do points scored: three. In total, their opponents have outscored Iowa 17-3 in the second half after trailing the Hawkeyes at the intermission. Of the Hawkeyes' 12 second-half possessions, only two consisted of at least 10 plays. Of those chances with the ball, only three gained more than 40 yards, with none exceeding 50 yards. Can Iowa avoid another second-half collapse?
Ihmir Smith-Marsette will be suspended for this game due to an arrest for driving while intoxicated on Sunday. The senior wide receiver caught seven passes for 84 yards against Northwestern, his highest career single-game reception total. He did not catch any passes at Purdue, although he did gain 18 yards on two rushing attempts. He has the second-most receiving yards on the team and is tied for second in receptions. Additionally, he has returned four kickoffs for 29.4 yards per return. How much will Smith-Marsette's absence affect Iowa's offensive production?
Who might step up to fill the void left by Smith-Marsette? Sam LaPorta, a sophomore tight end, already leads the Hawkeyes in receptions (11) and receiving yards (117). Sophomore wide receiver Nico Ragaini has caught the same number of passes as Smith-Marsette but for only 77 yards. Tyler Goodson, despite being a running back, also has seven receptions for 67 yards. Wide receiver Brandon Smith has accounted for six catches for 53 yards and Iowa's sole receiving touchdown so far in his senior season.
Who is Michigan State? The Spartans are such a conundrum. Against Rutgers, the perennial doormat of the Big Ten East, they could not hold on to the ball or protect any of their teammates who were holding the ball. A week later, they went toe-to-toe with an opponent ranked in the top 25 and pulled off an upset. Are they still celebrating the victory over their hated in-state rivals or have they changed their focus to Iowa?
Iowa has dropped a couple of nail-biters. The Hawkeyes need to find a way to maintain possession of the ball while continuing extended drives. One would think that they have learned their lesson after two failures. It seems that Iowa is due to pull out a late-game victory.
Prediction: Iowa 30, Michigan State 24
Podcast: Week 10 Preview and Predictions
— Written by John La Fleur, a contributor to AthlonSports.com, who focuses on the New Orleans Saints and Michigan State Spartans. He also frequently comments on other teams in the NFL and in NCAA football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur and read his viewpoints at gridironconnoisseur.wordpress.com and at gridiron-connoisseur.blogspot.com.
(Antjuan Simmons photo by Matthew Mitchell/Michigan State Athletics)