Iowa's Mark Weisman has 615 yards rushing and a 5.2-yard average. (Associated Press)
Iowa City, Iowa — Michigan State’s defensive players have said their plan each week is to make opponents one-dimensional.
It’s a simple concept. Shut down the opponents’ running game and then they must rely on the pass to win. Flip it around and focus on the pass and the running attack must carry the offense.
There’s no doubt defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi employs a much more technical scheme, but the basis is obvious. But what makes Michigan State so good is that it doesn’t matter which way a team decides to play it.
It’s enough to have Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz scratching his head entering today’s Legends Division matchup at Kinnick Stadium.
“The comparison I made is we used to play the Steelers in my six years (in the NFL),” said Ferentz, who was an assistant in Baltimore before taking over at Iowa in 1999. “They have a handful of things they do on first and second down, so it never looked like all that much but it was enough there. They certainly knew what they were doing. It was enough to cause problems with your run game and enough to cause protection problems.
“So on paper or on the board, it didn’t look like it was all that much, but just the challenge was getting the right play against the right thing because they never telegraphed and Michigan State doesn’t either. Then the most important thing — there’s a tie there — they’re good players that play hard and are well coached, and that’s what we’re seeing with Michigan State.”
The Spartans’ defense, No. 1 in the country overall (No. 1 against the pass, No. 2 against the run), has been seeing it for some time under Narduzzi. They have ranked in the top 10 in total defense each of the past two seasons, one of only five FBS teams to do so, and four games into this season, it doesn’t appear that string is about to end.
“They’re physical up front and great in the back,” Iowa running back Mark Weisman said. “They’re a tough defense.”
Weisman and the Hawkeyes, however, managed to get the best of the Spartans last season in a double-overtime victory. Weisman went over 100 yards and a late 37-yard gain led to the tying score.
He certainly will be a focus today for the Spartans.
“We need to be prepared to have the most physical game of the year, there’s no doubt about it,” linebackers coach Mike Tressel said. “Whether you’re at their football building or ours, I’m sure we’re both preaching the same thing, ‘This is the most physical game of the year, you need to be ready. You take one play off and it can cost you,’ that type of thing.”
Iowa has won four straight and is averaging 244.4 yards rushing. Considering Michigan State is allowing 58.2 yards, something has to give.
That something could look a lot like the Notre Dame approach two weeks ago. In that game, the Irish all but abandoned the run and threw multiple fade passes into man-to-man coverage.
The result was four pass interference calls and a defensive holding, aiding in Notre Dame’s 17-13 victory.
Could Iowa employ the same approach if it struggles to move the ball on the ground?
“I don’t know if we can go after them,” Ferentz said. “It’s a byproduct of their play and whenever you do that you’re going to have penalties. … But when they lock down on you, they’re in your face. There’s not a lot of breathing room there.”
More likely, the Hawkeyes will continue to give the ball to Weisman and hope sophomore quarterback Jake Rudock performs the way he has in the first five games.
The first-year starter is completing 61.7 percent of his passes and has six touchdowns. He’s also gained 128 yards on the ground and has scored five touchdowns.
“He has pretty good pocket presence,” Tressel said. “He steps up, moves around in the pocket pretty well, but certainly if you watch the film there’s a few times where he steps up, takes off and runs, and you can see speed out of him. You have to collapse the pocket, you need to always have someone have eyes on him so when he does take off you can rally.”
Containing the Hawkeyes will be vital considering today is the Big Ten opener for the Spartans. Coach Mark Dantonio doesn’t want to put too much emphasis on one game, but he does understand the importance of getting a win.
“It’s very important because it’s the first game (in conference play) and it sort of sets the tone for you,” he said. “Especially when you’re going away, you’re playing in a tough environment. You come home, play in the next couple of games at home, so it’s positive in that respect. It sort of begins to set the table for you as a Big Ten contender and in the Legends Division.
“Obviously, every football game is big for us, but there are certain ones that you sort of point to. But we’ve always tried to take that next game and make it a big game. I think our players are excited about playing.”