Spartan Football: The Outlook Moving Forward…Iowa

Jonathan Schopp

After their 31-24 win over Minnesota at home, the Spartans now hit the road for Iowa City once again to face the Hawkeyes on Saturday at noon.

Offense

“Pound, Green, Pound” will almost certainly mean something different than Spartan Nation was expecting coming into 2011. It hopes to mean more of an ability to run when needed rather than the ability to run whenever desired. This won’t be the best rushing team in the Dantonio era, for a variety of reasons, but it could still end up amongst the most effective if it can produce when it absolutely must in the final 3 regular season games, and 2 post-season tilts.

Eventually the loss of David Barrent, Henry Conway, Blake Treadwell, Skyler Burkland, and others will impact your Offensive Line. It has to. There’s just not enough scholarships available, let alone top notch talent to fill that many gaps without missing a beat. It's had a huge impact on the production of the BBC (Running Back Firm of Bell, Baker, & Caper) and the Offense as a whole. But the lineup is probably not going to change much the rest of the year, and if the Spartans can’t run it effectively, they probably won’t meet all of their pre-season goals.

It’s a safe bet the Offense realizes that, but also a reasonable question as to whether they’ll be able to succeed on the road come Saturday. Without an effective running attack, especially early on, things will get tougher for Kirk Cousins. The more Iowa thinks the Spartans can’t run it, the harder they’ll come after Cousins when he drops back to pass. MSU does not want to be in the position to attack Iowa without balance, and Offensive balance will begin and end with MSU’s ability to run the ball.

Spartan Nation knows Kirk Cousins’ personal relationship and history with Iowa. Kirk Cousins knows what it means to play in Iowa City, and what it means to get off to a really bad start. Whether or not Cousins pressed too hard in last year’s game is now beyond the point. What’s remarkably clear now is that he cannot force things this time around. He cannot make poor decisions and jeopardize the security of the ball. Yet, if he simply trusts it and takes what the Defense gives him, he could be looking at all-time career performance.

Defense

Pat Narduzzi said it best after the game Saturday; Minnesota was this unit’s most average performance of the year. Granted, they were down starters, and limited by the reality of having just come off a brutal October schedule, but that’s clearly not going to be used as an excuse by the Defensive Coordinator. Next week they should be expected to bounce back into a dominant unit, if healthy as expected.

Iowa doesn’t have Ricky Stanzi under center anymore.  Although James Vandenberg is a first year starter, he is an upperclassmen who knows the Iowa system. Gone is Derrell Johnson-Koulianos (WR), and also last year’s top Running Back. As a result, Iowa’s a pretty average Offensive team. The Spartans are outstanding Defensive team. They may or may not be among the few elite in the country, but they are in the Big Ten. Saturday will be another firm road test to go out and prove it.

William Gholston’s 29 tackles in the last two games suggest that he’s on fire right now. Be sure that Kirk Ferentz (with an extensive Offensive Line pedigree) has taken notice, and expect him to throw something different at the Spartans’ budding star. If Gholston gets extra attention, there should be an opportunity for another Spartan defender to shine somewhere else.

One of the signature characteristics of a dominant Defense is that they’re good all over. They have no real weakness. So if you overcompensate for one position, you leave one of the other 10 defenders more free to attack. This unit has playmakers at each level of the unit. Iowa may have a tough time measuring up.

Special Teams

Mike Sadler was again a standout Saturday. Coming into any specific season, it’s hard to predict just how valuable a Punter might be. His effectiveness is almost always tied to the situation he steps into, which cannot reasonably be predicted too far in advance. It’s hard to ask much more of Sadler, but given the Offense’s issues at times, he’ll probably be counted on again to perform in the clutch down the stretch.

Dan Conroy is no stranger to being counted on in the clutch himself. Though this season hasn’t been a busy as the last, there’s still three wins needed to close out the Division, four to get into the Rose Bowl. Conroy is likely to be needed at a very key moment, thus it was nice he got into the act again on Saturday because the idea of a “cold” kicker going out for a season making try isn’t exactly ideal.

Overall

This is not the same Iowa team the Spartans have seen the last couple of years. To say things have be a little volatile on the Iowa roster over the last 12-months would be more than an overstatement. From eye opening drug charges (Johnson-Koulianos), to a startling weight room oddity (weight lifting injuries this spring), to star dismissals (RB Adam Robinson), to heroic coaching comebacks (Norm Parker), things have not been smooth. Gone as well are some of the Defensive terrors (especially up front) who've disrupted each of the Spartans last two Big Ten runs. If anything, the waxing the Hawks applied to MSU last year in Iowa City might actually help the Spartans play their best come Saturday. This team has not forgotten that Halftime feeling of being ambushed and finished off quickly, 30-0.

This time, the Spartans should smell Division Championship blood, and see this golden opportunity, with a side of competitive revenge. If they go into Kinnick and win, they’ll stand clear above the crowd at 5-1 in the Legends. If they lose, they’ll reopen the race and join big a bunch at 4-2. And after the tie breaker equation would eventually be figured out by Saturday’s end, likely would be booted firmly from the Division driver’s seat.

What Spartan could ask for anything more?  To go into hostile territory, exercise significant demons, and get their first hand on the Division trophy sounds almost too good to be true. But then again, so does playing for a ticket to the Rose Bowl in another month.

P.A.T. (Perhaps Another Thought…)

  1. It’s time to take a look at reopening Munn Field for tailgating. It’s been nearly 15 years since one of the best tailgating spots in the Big Ten was essentially shut down. The shut down has hurt the MSU Football Saturday environment. Without knowing all of the possible issues on Munn Field, I think in 2011 and for the future there are solutions available that can once again make Munn a viable full scale option. If you’re looking for more fans to come out for home games in this day and age, you’ve gotta do more to entice them to spend their precious time and money.
  2. It was nice to see another 1 vs. 2 regular season clash on Saturday night, but LSU-Alabama did not live up to the hype. Sure, each Defense was impressive, but what about the rest of the game? And don’t think for a minute that the 9-6 LSU Overtime win was anywhere near the class of the best game in the history of the sport, the 10-10 tie. These teams didn’t even produce one Touchdown. The last 1 vs. 2 regular season thriller was the Ohio St.-Michigan game from 2006. It was not only a 42-39 Buckeye close one, it was on the last weekend of the season, for all the marbles, and also the biggest game in history of the sport’s most popular rivalry. That one may not be matched for decades…Saturday night wasn’t even close.

*Follow Jonathan on Twitter @JPSpartan, and find him inside the Phalanx Forum

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