Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz was asked this week if a player can lose his starting job due to injury. The question was in reference to the running back position. Sophomore Damon Bullock has a chance to return this week after missing the last three because of a concussion suffered Sept. 15 against Northern Iowa. Ferentz said, that is usually true about injuries, but if your replacement averages 6.96 yards a carry . . . And here's the true test for sophomore Mark Weisman, the walk-on Air Force Academy transfer who started the season as the No. 2 fullback. Weisman has done a lot of damage since he was inserted at running back, but that damage has come against Northern Iowa (FCS), Central Michigan (MAC) and Minnesota (bottom-third Big Ten). Will freshman guard Austin Blythe (foot/ankle) play? He was doubtful late in the week. If he can't go, sophomore Andrew Donnal would get his second straight start. The Spartans are strong here, especially against pro-style offenses. Ohio State QB Braxton Miller got loose a few times, but no one has been able to line up and run at MSU. Spartans miss Jerel Worthy as a playmaker, but new tackles (Micajah Reynolds and Anthony Rashad White OR James Kittredge at nose) are stout and MLB Max Bullough is all Big-Ten caliber and the safeties are strong in run support. The Spartans allow just 1.10 yards per carry inside their 20.†Advantage: Even
Some internet grumbling over the fact that Iowa QB James Vandenberg bagged a monster deer during the idle week and wasn't grinding on the flagging passing game 24-7. Five weeks in, it's apparent that Iowa's pass game needs to find its way in game conditions. All involved have said practices are great, it's just that practice hasn't shown up during games. "It's something that can't be fixed right away," Vandenberg said. "The overall cleanliness is what we're looking for more consistently. I think we took steps in the bye week and put ourselves in good situations to learn." Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz was asked this week if there was any temptation to turn back a few pages in the playbook, but no, it's all systems go with first-year coordinator Greg Davis' pass offense. The systems just have to get going. Weird, incongruent stat for Michigan State is sacks. The Spartans are last in the Big Ten with just five.†Teams have set protections toward on keeping highly touted end†Will Gholston out of the backfield. He has had a less-than-expected season with just one sack. Senior CB Johnny Adams also has had a rough season, but, unlike Iowa, MSU puts its corners out there along, asks them to jam and often go without safety help. It dares teams to throw the fade and some have hit on it. Still, Spartans have loads of talent on the back end, with speedy CB Darqueze Dennard and playmaking strong safety Isaiah Lewis.†Advantage: Michigan State
Iowa's defense is having a representative season. With a relativetly new D-line, the Hawkeyes are third in the Big Ten in rush defense, allowing just 111 yards a game and 3.32 a carry. Iowa has yet to face a premeir running back or rush offense. The Hawkeyes have allowed just 3.02 yards a carry in the second half of games this season and 1.63 inside their 20-yard line. Senior Steve Bigach has given the Hawkeyes a boost at tackle after being put there after the Northern Illinois game. Weakside linebacker Anthony Hitchens is third in the nation with 12.6 tackles a game. Middle linebacker James Morris is No. 23 with 10.0. The last time Iowa had a pair of defenders average double digits in tackles was 2005, when linebackers Abdul Hodge and Chad Greenway averaged 13.1 and 13.0, respectively. The Spartans' OL has lost RT Fou Fonoti (stress fracture) and Travis Jackson (broken leg) for the season. MSU is still shuffling at C and LG, because Blake Treadwell is back from a leg injury. It will either be Ethan Ruhland at C and Jack Allen at his usual LG, or Allen to C with Treadwell at† LG. Despite Le'Veon Bell's stellar numbers (No. 2 in the conference with 129.3 yards a game, seven TDs and 28.5 carries a game), the Spartans can't land the knockout with just its running game.†Advantage: Even
Junior CB B.J. Lowery hasn't been healthy all season. In the opener, 310-pound defensive tackle Carl Davis landed on him early in the second half, sending him out of the game. Then against Central Michigan, Lowery suffered a foot/ankle injury. He sat out of the Minnesota game and Ferentz made it sound as though Lowery is doubtful today. If he can't play, it's senior Greg Castillo, who picked off the first pass of his career against Minnesota. Will there be any lingering effects for senior cornerback Micah Hyde after his arrest for public intoxication and interference with official acts? No. Hyde is a mature player. The passing game was the biggest question entering the season for MSU and it's definitely improving. Freshman WR Aaron Burbridge came out of nowhere last week to catch eight for 134. Sure it was Indiana, but still, Burbridge feels like the real deal. Tight end Dion Sims is a huge loss in this game, in the pass and run game. The 6-5, 285-pounder has 24 catches and is a key blocker on the edge. Quarterback Andrew Maxwell has been solid to very good at times. The Spartans went through a stretch where receivers dropped 18 passes over three games (vs. ND, EMU and OSU). WR Bennie Fowler is talented, but has dropped passes. Pass protection has been solid outside of the Notre Dame loss (four).†Advantage: Michigan State
This game will feature two of the Big Ten's top placekickers. MSU's Dan Conroy is 11 of 16 this season, and MSU coach Mark Dantonio isn't afraid of trotting him out for 50-yarders. Conroy has made three this season and is 6 of 9 from that distance during his career. After finishing on a 2 of 6 skid to end 2011, Iowa's Mike Meyer has made 10 of 11 this season, including nine consecutive and a career-long 50-yarder. Heís 3 of 4 from 40-plus. MSU's Mike Sadler has emerged as one of the best punters in the Big Ten, averaging 44.97 on 30 punts. MSU's Nick Hill is off punt return after his third muffed punt last week. Andre Sims Jr. will get a crack. MSU has had a punt blocked and, overall, hasn't seen a positive difference in the kicking game as in past years. This will happen when a returner the caliber of Keshawn Martin goes to the NFL. Against Minnesota, junior Jordan Cotton replaced senior Keenan Davis in kick return. In four seasons on kick return, Davis never averaged more than 20 yards at any given point. This is going to be a punt game. The duo of freshman Connor Kornbrath and senior John Wienke have held up its end, but don't be shocked if you start to see Wienke more.†Advantage: Even
1) Weathering heights†ó The Weather Channel says there is a 100-percent chance of rain in East Lansing today with winds out of the south/southeast clocking 14 mph. Basically, the Weather Channel says 100 percent chance of 25-plus carries for Bell and Weisman and may the best big back, raw-boned O-line win. 2) Gear shift†ó Iowa has some obvious ties to the Patriorts. You know that O-line coach Brian Ferentz came to Iowa after spending four years with the Patriots. Head coach Kirk Ferentz worked for Pats coach Bill Belichick during his stint as OL coach in Cleveland. Last week, the Pats ran†89 offensive plays (second in team history for a non-overtime game). Asked this week if he was interested in getting Iowa's play count up, Kirk Ferentz said "You canít be everything. You have to do what you believe in. Two teams that are the opposite of that played for the Big Ten championship last year [Wisconsin and MSU]. You can put water on everybodyís campfire if you want to talk about stuff. Itís what you do and doing it well. Weíre still trying to figure out whatís best for our football team. Thatís a process that just keeps going. I think you have to do whatís best for you and your players." In other words, Iowa will continue to play footsy with the hurry-up no-huddle, but it'll never marry it.†3) Iowa's first road game†ó Chicago didn't count. It's always interesting to see how a team reacts on the road. Spartan Stadium is a nasty place that can be sneaky loud (up to 80,000).†Advantage: Michigan State
Weisman goes for more than 100 yards and Iowa can generate points off a turnover. Sure, that's some Captain Obvious stuff, but here's a fact about Iowa and taking advantage of turnovers this season: The Hawkeyes have scored just 13 points off 10 turnovers and six of those came against Minnesota when linebacker Christian Kirksey returned an interception 68 yards for a score. Iowa isn't a strong enough team to squander found money.
Maxwell finds his groove with Burbridge and the Spartans get to Vandenberg. The Spartans have five sacks so far this year. Last season, the Spartans finished third in the nation with 45. It's a lot of the same bodies, so you know they're capable.
PREDICTION:†Michigan State 19, Iowa 16