EAST LANSING, Mich. – Coach Mark Dantonio thinks Michigan State has gained confidence during its bye week, looking ahead to its Big Ten opener at Iowa instead of back at the big disappointment at Notre Dame.
The Spartans (3-1) know what they have with the nation's top-ranked defense but can't say with certainty when or if their offense will show up against the Hawkeyes.
"We're going to answer that question Saturday," Dantonio said. "I think we're a better football team. We've been able to regroup a little bit. I think any time you have the opportunity to collect yourself after a contest, a test, anything in life, you're going to be able to learn from that experience."
Michigan State spent the past nine days in search of consistency and big plays, especially in a passing attack that has produced more than 135 yards just once. Only in a rout of Youngstown State has the offense scored more than one touchdown. And one more visit to the end zone could have changed everything in a 17-13 loss to the Fighting Irish.
Points also could be hard to come by against Iowa (4-1, 1-0 Big Ten) and the league's No. 2-ranked defense. Iowa never trailed in its four wins in September and is the only team in the country to have played five games without allowing a TD rushing.
That could mean more pressure on Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook, who was relieved by Andrew Maxwell late against Notre Dame. Cook will be back in control in Iowa City.
"I think in the red zone you're going to see more blitzes probably and more pressure," Dantonio said of a problem the past two seasons. "The field shrinks, so the ability to make a play and create at quarterback becomes even more important. If your quarterback makes quicker decisions with the football, that's a way of creating. Or he can do it with his feet."
The Spartans have done a decent job of rushing the football. Jeremy Langford and Nick Hill have combined to gain 120.2 yards per game, not far behind Le'Veon Bell's league-leading 137.9 average last year. But Iowa has held all five opponents below their season average.
Michigan State won't take a backseat to any team in terms of defensive stats. It ranks first in total defense at 188.8 yards per game, in pass defense with a 130.5-yard average and in pass efficiency defense with a 72.63 rating. It's second in the country in rushing yield (58.2) and opponents' third-down conversions (21 percent).
The trick could be for the Spartans to generate points on defense, as they did with eight takeaways and nine sacks in their first three games. They didn't have an interception, a fumble recovery or a sack against Notre Dame, with two takeaways nullified by a review and a penalty.
In a series marked by last-drive outcomes and double-overtime sessions, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz has won four of six meetings with Dantonio, more than any other coach. Perhaps that's appropriate since the Hawkeyes were a program Michigan State looked at as a model seven seasons ago.
"I think there are a lot of similarities," Dantonio said. "Iowa is a program that prides itself on toughness. I think we do, too. There are some aspects that were tied to Coach (George Perles) in his time here (longtime Iowa assistant coaches Norm and Phil Parker). And when we walked into the Big Ten in 2007, I looked at Iowa and said, 'That's who we can be.'"