Big Game…Big Hits…Another Big Saturday Night in Spartan Stadium

Jonathan Schopp

We can guarantee one thing about Saturday night, there will be hitting. Oh, there will be hitting. The hard charging Spartans welcome the BCS 6th ranked Iowa Hawkeyes into Spartan Stadium for a second straight year (schedule quirk) for what promises to be an all out bruiser. The teams may very well pick up where they left off last October 4th. That game was probably the most physical of the season; this one all should be as well.

The Hawkeyes haven’t enjoyed a winning trip to East Lansing since 1995, which makes Iowa Head Coach Kirk Ferentz the dreaded “oh-fer” at Michigan St. thus far. It started out painful for Ferentz, as the Hawkeyes got destroyed by MSU 49-3 in 1999. That effort was the Spartans most dominant performance of that outstanding season. Give Ferentz credit for a sense of humor about that shellacking though. He has jokingly referred to that game often as an early career highlight and cherished road trip.

Both teams come into this game playing as well as any in the Big Ten. The Spartans are starting to play consistently like a team that can compete again for the conference title, and the Hawks are suddenly in the role of front runner, and “team to beat” in the Big Ten right now. Iowa is 7-0, for the first time since 1985, and second time since 1922. If anyone was around during both the two previous 7-0 starts, Spartan Nation wants to hear from you this week.

Kicking Could be the Edge

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These two teams pride themselves on being the most physical in the Big Ten. That approach helped produce a close result last year, and suggests Saturday’s contest could end up just as close. Therefore, the kicking game should again play a critical role, which is an advantage for MSU. It’s not that Iowa��s kicking game is severely lacking, it’s that the Spartans may have the best overall kicking game in the country.

Sr. PK Brett Swenson and Jr. P Aaron Bates are each in consideration for National awards at their position. Both should also get a serious look at taking their kicking game to the next level, following in the extensive Spartan kicking lineage that includes the likes of Paul Edinger, Dave Rayner, Craig Jarrett, Brandon Fields, and “The Great Dane” Morten Anderson, aka the highest scoring player in the history of the NFL.

“We have great execution from Bates… he’s put punts inside the 10 many times throughout his career. He’s got great leadership, and he’s very calm under pressure,” Coach D told Spartan Nation, Tuesday. “Swenson is a one Field Goal away from being the all time leading Field Goal kicker here, and 7 points away from being the all time leading scorer here. So that in itself talks to you about his confidence, his composure, and his ability to get it done under pressure.”

The Spartan’s kicking game has truly been the rock of this 2009 Spartan football team. It has been the team’s most consistent and reliable unit, again. “Both those guys give us an identity on Special Teams, where we should be superior in that area every game,” Dantonio said. “They’re one of the reasons were battling back this year, and certainly one of the reasons we won 9 games last year.”

While chasing their dreams in the NFL is in the years to come, both of these guys have been so good at MSU, they’re often taken for granted. Not only by the fans, but even by the ever so wise MSU media. Let me be the first to admit guilt.

Anytime Bates comes in to kick a punt, I don’t worry about him shanking it, or deciding to go rouge with a Zoltan Mesko (P, Michigan) like impromptu fake punt call. And anytime Swenson comes in, how many of us simply think, “money.” I’ve become so confident in Swenson, I figure the staff wouldn’t even call for a Field Goal try unless they’re absolutely sure he’s going to make it. That’s how good these guys are. The Spartan Nation should really cherish them while they’re here. They very well could be the difference again come late Saturday night.

Getting Enough From the Tight Ends?

One concern floating around the Spartan Nation this week is the production from the TE position. Is it the play calling? Are the QBs not seeing them? Are they not getting open? These are some of the questions swirling around a position some perceive as currently underachieving. The Spartan Nation knows there are four of them, and that they can be very good individually and as a unit. The Nation also professes to know that the Offense’s success from here on will be closely linked to the performance of the TEs.

Head Coach Mark Dantonio addressed the issue of TE production during an interview Tuesday, and told Spartan Nation that he’s pleased with what he’s seeing right now. He’s not concerned with their recent lack of receptions early in games, and not disappointed in their overall play. “There’s so many things that go into that (throwing to TEs)…the QB goes to people depending on reads, depending on pressures, and depending on the coverages…,” Dantonio said.

Coach D expects the TE position to continue as a team strength, and grow only stronger throughout the rest of the season. “Those things will come, they’re very very good at catching the football, and they do a tremendous job of blocking.” Yet, Rs.-So. QB Kirk Cousins told Spartan Nation Tuesday that he felt the Spartans haven’t gotten the ball to the TEs enough lately, and wanted to get the four of them more involved in the Offense moving forward.

The ball may not have gone the TEs way enough early in the last couple of games, but it’s not quite time to panic just yet. It makes much more sense to take what a Defense gives you rather than force feed the ball somewhere out of stubbornness. Yet, utilizing the TEs to their full extent is certainly on the Spartan Coaches’ radar more prominently these days. The Spartan Nation should trust that Dantonio and Offensive Coordinator Don Treadwell know the TEs are out there, and are constantly looking for ways to feature them in the Offense. They should also remember that no one in the Spartan Nation wants to win any more the coaching staff, and they’ll continue to call the plays and make decisions they think give MSU the best chance to win.

The Game is What it is...HUGE

There’s no denying the high stakes of Saturday night. Before the season, the Spartan Nation expected MSU to be near the top of the conference at this point, and long ago pointed towards the Iowa game as one with the potential to directly determine the ’09 Conference champion. But clearly no one had mapped out this path to get to this point. That part of what makes this matchup so intriguing.

Has Iowa already peaked? Have the Spartans truly rebounded from rock bottom to mount an unstoppable charge that’s only going to keep building on Saturday? Those storylines and others make meaningful conference games at the end of October. It’s all on the line, for both teams. And they both know another “season within a season” starts Saturday night.

Mark Dantonio’s program has won 11 of their last 14 Big Ten games. This team is starting to turn what looked like an absolute disaster of a year, had they lost to Michigan, into a real turning point for the program. If the Spartans continue to play well through the end of the season and somehow win 8 games (including a bowl), it should permanently shed whatever is left of the horrid demons of MSU Football 2000-2006. Any finish better than that will only strengthen the Spartans’ statement that these are indeed new times in East Lansing, and those “Same Old Spartans” are gone for good.

“Every single team in the Big 10, conceptually they’re well designed. They give you problems by design…those are the things you have to be ready for,” Dantonio told Spartan Nation about the meticulous preparations for Iowa. Though Iowa is a fairly straight forward opponent, that doesn’t mean they’re much easier to prepare for. “You can’t make mental mistakes in adjustments. You have to be sound in what you’re trying to do.”

Iowa has been rolling with Ferentz’s trademark disciplined and physical football. Yet, the Hawkeyes have really benefited this year from the improved play of Jr. QB Ricky Stanzi. Stanzi is a tough QB who doesn’t always make the prettiest plays, but usually makes the smart ones. To me, he compares well with the Spartan QB from ’99, Bill Burke. Coach Ferentz told Spartan Nation Tuesday that QB experience is a key factor to having a great team that can win on the road in the Big Ten.

Ferentz added that winning on the road is maybe simpler than it sounds, in a way. “You have to play well…that sounds like a pretty stupid answer, but it’s true,” he quipped. Ferentz also noted that the competition in college football in 2009 isn’t what it used to be, so every opponent needs a total focus. “Just look around the country last week…there are no gimmies out there, so you’d better be ready to play each week.”

Coming off last year’s tough loss at Spartan Stadium, Iowa Football turned a very big corner. “We left town 3-3 that day, and had experienced three very tough losses… they were all very close.” Ferentz’s Hawks finished ’08 strong, including a convincing win over Steve Spurrier and South Carolina in the Outback Bowl. The Hawkeyes now ride into East Lansing on an impressive 11 game winning streak, currently second best in the country. But Ferentz doesn’t think his team will come into Saturday over confident. “I’ll predict this…if we make some of those same errors, or let Michigan St. force us into some of those same errors, we’ll have the same outcome (as ’08).”

Saturday night under the Spartan Stadium lights is lining up to be another classic. The Spartan Nation can hardly wait for the collision between the rallying Spartans and the front running Hawkeyes. Both coaching staffs respect each other, and both teams pride themselves on being more disciplined and physical than their opponents. Who could ask for anything more of out a College Football Saturday night?

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