In the Midwest, football is king. And two states that love their football as much as anyone else in the United States are Iowa and Michigan. So the game this weekend, when the Spartans take on Iowa for the second straight year in East Lansing, would naturally be an emotion-filled contest. But considering the team's recent histories, the game carries some extra weight.
First, these two programs have been building similar trajectories of success in the Big Ten. Mark Dantonio has built his Spartan program from the ground up, focusing on constructing a solid foundation between the tackles to produce a consistent running game and a passing game that compliments a smash-mouth brand of football. Like Iowa with its power running game, MSU has fast become known for sloberknocking opponents under the stewardship of Dantonio.
Adding to the rivalry, which Iowa leads 20-18-2, is the ping-pong nature of the recent series, where the squads trade wins back and forth depending on where the game is played. Since 1996, the home team has emerged victorious. And there was perhaps no more exciting game than last season's in Spartan Stadium.
In the 4th quarter of a 16-13 game, Iowa marched the pigskin into field goal range in MSU territory. Looking for a touchdown death blow with just under three minutes remaining in the game, the Hawkeyes decided to go for it on 4th-and-inches. In what can be described as a program shifting play, Adam Decker, a junior linebacker who works as hard as anyone on the team, stepped into Spartan lore. As the ball was snapped, and battering ram running back Shonn Greene took the handoff, Spartan fans held their collective breath, anticipating an easy Iowa first down followed by what would surely be a drive ending in a touchdown. Instead, Decker read the play, slid down the line of scrimmage as his nostrils flared with anticipation, and he smacked the Iowa back behind the line, sealing a victory for MSU.
That play, and that victory, created a spark in the psyche of MSU coaches, players and fans. It said, yes, MSU is a team that can win with its defense; yes, MSU is a team that will show up every Saturday, play 60 minutes of head-rattling football and more often than not emerge victorious. Sure, the Michigan victory was monumental last season, but the Iowa win contributed enormously to the culture of winning that Dantonio has quickly established in East Lansing.
Adding to the rivalry between these twin programs was the recruiting drama that played out last season. Highly regarded offensive tackle prospect David Barrent had pledged to Iowa. But after a series of embarrassing incidents involving the program, Barrent switched his commitment to Michigan State, giving the Spartans a marquee tackle prospect to go along with a pair of stud running backs, a cannon-armed QB and some potentially game-breaking wide receivers.
Along with Edwin Baker, Barrent played in the Army All American game, giving MSU two spotlight caliber players drawing national attention on a major recruiting stage. For MSU recruiting, the Barrent commitment was like a shot of testosterone, bulking up the image of a program that had been known in the past for overachieving with players that might have been second options. Now MSU was pulling in big fish left and right, and Barrent, a Clive, Iowa, native proved that the Spartans could recruit monster names even outside of the friendly confines of its home state.
So as the Spartans line up against the Hawkeyes this Saturday, the Notre Dames, Ohio States and Michigans of the Midwest had better be paying attention. The future of the conference just might be on display in East Lansing, because these two programs are not going away anytime soon. And if MSU can secure another home win against Iowa, it will ratchet up its prominence one more notch on its way to the promised land of a Big Ten championship.