The 13th-ranked Michigan State Spartans are poised to keep rising in the polls coming down the home stretch of the Big Ten season, but have a formidable challenge ahead this weekend when they visit Iowa City and the Iowa Hawkeyes in a crucial league game for both teams.
Michigan State responded to a loss to Nebraska two weeks ago with a scrappy, hard-fought 31-24 win over Minnesota last Saturday. Michigan State has one of the best defenses in college football, and will be right in the thick of the Big Ten race in the final weeks of the season, especially considering that the Spartans close the year with Indiana and Northwestern.
"I think if you play well enough to get yourself in the thick of things coming into November, you've got a great case, and you've got a lot of opportunities in front of us," said Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio at his weekly press conference on Tuesday. "You've got a lot of things to play for, and that's what we're looking at."
Iowa dug deep and upset Michigan 24-16 last weekend, coming up with a goal- line stand at the end of the game to preserve the win. The victory not only gave the Hawkeyes a winning mark in Big Ten play at 3-2, but also gave Iowa another postseason berth. The Hawkeyes will try to grow their 6-3 record in the final weeks of November, traveling to Purdue and Nebraska following the home finale against Michigan State on Saturday.
Michigan State is led offensively by quarterback Kirk Cousins, who completed 23-of-34 passes for 296 yards and two touchdowns last weekend against Minnesota. Cousins is fourth in the Big Ten in passing efficiency (139.6), and has thrown for 1,989 yards with 13 touchdowns against five interceptions this season. B.J. Cunningham is tied for third in Big Ten receptions per game with 5.6, and is third in receiving yards with 91.8. Cunningham, who has three touchdowns this season, caught three passes for 104 yards last weekend against the Gophers.
The Michigan State running game is last in the Big Ten in terms of production, posting 130.3 yards per game. The Spartans have a durable back in LeVeon Bell, who averages 58.6 yards per game, and had his best game of the season last weekend with 96 yards and two touchdowns against Minnesota. Edwin Baker averages 54.6 rushing yards per game for the Spartans, and has scored two touchdowns in 2011.
Michigan State's defense is at the center of its 7-2 record thus far, ranking second in the country to only Alabama in total defense (249.4) and pass defense (145.8). The Spartans are second in the Big Ten in rushing defense (103.5) and pass efficiency defense (102.8), as well as sacks per game with 2.8. Minnesota made big plays last weekend in the first quarter to hang tough with Michigan State, but the Spartans still produced two turnovers and snuffed out the Gophers' running game, especially in the second half (Minnesota gained 120 yards on 40 carries). William Gholston continued his impressive campaign with 14 tackles last weekend, including 1.5 tackles for loss. Trenton Robinson added six stops and two interceptions.
"Obviously, when you go away and play, I think turnovers, special teams, how you play on the road and really defensively, how you play in the red zone is going to be key to us," said Dantonio.
Iowa got another outstanding performance from running back Marcus Coker in its upset of Michigan last weekend. Coker, who leads the Big Ten in rushing, ran for 132 yards and two touchdowns on 29 carries. Coker averages 122.3 yards rushing per game, and has rushed for 384 yards in the last two games alone. Overall, Coker has ran for 1,101 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2011. James Vanderberg, who threw for 171 yards and one score against the Wolverines, is second in the conference in pass efficiency (154.8) and has thrown for 2,089 yards and 18 touchdowns with just four interceptions this season. Marvin McNutt has proven to be on the league's best wide receivers. He hauls in 6.3 catches and 106.5 yards per game. Iowa averages 235.4 yards and 31.6 points per game.
The Iowa defense stepped up against Michigan as well, keeping the electrifying Denard Robinson in check. The Michigan quarterback battled an injury throughout the game, and ended up throwing for 194 yards with two touchdowns and one interception, but ran for just 55 yards on 12 carries. Iowa limited Michigan to a modest 323 yards of total offense. Iowa got standout performances from Jordan Bernstine, who posted 15 tackles, and Tyler Nielsen had 13 tackles, including two for loss and one fumble recovery. Iowa is eighth in the Big Ten in total defense (393.4) and allows 22.3 points per game, which is seventh in the league.