In a matchup few had predicted, No. 4 Iowa (12-0, 8-0) and No. 5 Michigan State (11-1, 7-1) are set to meet at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Saturday for the Big Ten title and with a trip to the College Football Playoff on the line.
Iowa undoubtedly has a chip on their shoulder ahead of this high-profile game. The Hawkeyes are eager to prove they belong after some have repudiated their undefeated season due to their soft schedule with Iowa having played just one AP-ranked school in Northwestern on Oct. 17. Michigan State has played three ranked schools and beat them all, including ending Ohio State’s 23-game win streak with a 17-14 victory in Columbus on Nov. 21.
In order to pull off the “upset,” the Hawkeyes are expected to maintain their offensive strategy against the favored Spartans. Iowa has made a season out of controlling the tempo by establishing the run, rushing for an average of 203.7 yards per game, and their 35 rushing touchdowns is tied for first in the Big Ten.
Michigan State is a respectable run defense at 118.2 yards allowed per game and held Ohio State to just 86 yards, but Iowa has seen better run defenses in Wisconsin, Nebraska and Northwestern over the course of conference play. Iowa rushed for substantially more than each those run defenses averaged throughout the season. There’s reason to think the Hawkeyes will be able to establish their run game and set things up for quarterback C.J. Beathard against a Spartan secondary that has been suspect at times this season. Jordan Canzeri leads the way with 964 rushing yards, good for No. 5 in the conference .
Beathard has completed 60.7 percent of his passes for 14 touchdowns and has run for six additional scores. He’s thrown just three interceptions on the season but hasn’t tossed a pick since the Oct. 17 win over Northwestern.
For Michigan State, the strength of their team has been quarterback Connor Cook, who is back at full health after injuring his shoulder and missing the Ohio State game. Cook has thrown 24 touchdowns and just four interceptions. The Spartans rank No. 4 in the Big Ten with 239.8 passing yards per game and tied for first with 26 passing touchdowns altogether. It seems that if Michigan State is going to hand the Hawkeyes their first loss, it will come at the hands of Cook and the Spartan passing attack.
Although it took an improbable blunder by the Michigan Wolverines, Cook kept the Spartans in the game against Michigan's efficient secondary, throwing for 328 yards and a score. Against Penn State, the conference's third-best pass defense (174.5 yards allowed), Cook tossed for 248 yards and three touchdowns. But a mistake by Cook could be costly, as Iowa has 17 interceptions on the season.
If Cook and the Michigan State offense can have success against Iowa’s secondary and grab an early lead, the pressure will be on Beathard and an Iowa offense that lacks in big-play scoring. It would also mean less pressure on the Spartans to have success on the ground against Iowa’s run defense, which ranks second in the Big Ten (110 yards per game). Cook will no doubt look towards senior wide receiver Aaron Burbridge, who leads the conference in yards (1,158), and has seven touchdowns.
While there are plenty of differences between these two teams, they share similarities as well. The Hawkeyes have scored 33.7 points per game this season while the Spartans average 33.4. They both won on last-second special teams plays this season. Iowa and Michigan State have both won five games by one score or less and hold a +14 turnover margin. Iowa has converted on 87.8 percent of their red-zone opportunities for 35 touchdowns while Michigan State has converted on 85.1 percent for 34 touchdowns.
Both schools enter with a winning attitude, and feeling a strong sense of momentum. Iowa effectively bounced back from three straight losses in 2014, while Michigan State’s only loss came by a single point on the road, and in controversial fashion. Dantonio's squad probably has an extra spring in their step having defeated Ohio State on the road, and thumping Penn State in East Lansing.
Betting Line: Michigan State -4
Over/Under: 51.5 points
Prediction: Michigan State is more of a complete team than Iowa has faced this season. While the Hawkeyes probably put up a fight, Cook should provide problems for the Iowa secondary and lift the Spartans to a hard-fought win.
Predicted Score: Michigan State over Iowa, 31-23