Saturday is the big one in the Big Ten as Michigan State takes on Iowa in Indianapolis for a de-facto elimination game for the College Football Playoff. Both teams are riding high going into the matchup, and the difference could be razor-thin between to do.
Here are five things Michigan State must do to beat Iowa:
5. Slow Down the Ground Game
Iowa is an extremely balanced team, but it all starts with the ability to move the chains on the ground. The offensive line has opened up lanes for the Canzeri, Daniels and gang, and that has allowed C.J. Beathard to use play action and his legs to morph into big-play mode.
If the Spartans’ defensive line can control things like it did in Columbus, the Hawkeyes will have to resort to throwing the ball to gobble up chunks of real estate. Becoming one-dimensional is the last thing you want to fall prey to when going against the pass rush of such a talented front.
4. Pressure Beathard
On that note, Beathard can’t be allowed to sit back and be a sniper. Michigan State has to get to him early and often to set the tone and let him know that he’s going to be picking himself up off the turf all day. It’s one thing to be confident in your offensive line and stand tall in the pocket, but when a team gets in some licks, passes start to be short-armed and rushed, and that leads to more misfires than a North Korean missile test.
This Spartan defense is predicated on getting pressure up front so that the back-end can hold up, and it has to be the same here. Iowa’s offense is one that succeeds with fundamental rhythm, and that balance must be upset.
3. Keep the Big Plays to a Minimum
Everyone likes to credit the Iowa defense for all the success this year, but the offense has been dialing up big plays all year, both through the air and on the ground. The Hawkeyes have the style and personnel to patiently move down the field, but that’s not what they’ve been accustomed to.
If Michigan State can keep things in front, play sound assignment football, but still apply pressure and not miss tackles, it can make Iowa earn every yard and struggle to put points on the board. It worked against Ohio State, and it can work in Indy.
2. Tempo and more Tempo
Michigan State has the ability to play multiple ways. It can kill teams softly with a ball control offense, it can air it out, or it can limit the playbook and play with more tempo. That feels like the ingredients needed against an Iowa team that likes to get into its base sets on defense and play sound assignment football.
By playing fast and trying to get Iowa into mismatches, the Spartans have the playmakers on the outside to take advantage. They can’t go too fast to throw caution to the wind, but a quicker approach can wear down the defense and make things easier later in the game.
1. Find Your Beach
The program has been great under Mark Dantonio, but when the team can find extra motivation, it seems to find another gear. Case in point; revenge was on the mind when the Spartans traveled to Columbus to take on Ohio State, and they played their best game of the season to date on defense. They were angry and hungry, and it showed. However, against other teams, MSU seemed to go through the motions and then had to make plays at the end to pull away.
It’s certainly motivation enough to know that a Big Ten title is on the line, but the coaches need to find that sweet spot that is in the wheelhouse of emotions for the players that carry this team, because the Hawkeyes also have a trophy in mind. The Spartans have been there before, and they know it takes another level of competition to win this thing. It’s up to Dantonio and the coaching staff to figure out how to get them there.
Phil Harrison is a frequent contributor to talking10.com. He is also a the founder of Big10news.com and featured contributor to collegefootballews.com, thestudentsection.com, and occasionally campusinsiders.com. You can follow him on twitter @PhilHarrisonCFB or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org If that doesn’t work, you can find him in the doghouse at home.