By LUKE MEREDITH/AP Sports Writer
IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) – Michigan State is the best team in the nation at stopping the run. Iowa is built to run on anyone.
Want to see some old-school football?
It should feel like a trip back in time when the Spartans (3-1, 0-0 Big Ten) open Big Ten play against the Hawkeyes (4-1, 1-0) on Saturday.
Michigan State ranks first in the country in total defense and in allowing less than 2.1 yards per carry. Iowa is third nationally with 263 carries and eighth with 1,222 yards rushing. Throw in a forecast of wind, rain and cool temperatures, and this matchup has all the makings of a physical, low-scoring matchup reminiscent of the Big Ten of old.
About all that will be missing will be two-bar facemasks and a cloud of dust.
“I think there are a lot of similarities … (Iowa) is a program that prides itself on toughness, which I think we do, too,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said.
The Hawkeyes have won four games in a row, matching their total for all of 2012, behind a vastly improved defense and bruising running back Mark Weisman. He’s fourth in the nation with 615 yards rushing – with at least 145 yards four times – and has epitomized Iowa’s tough-minded personality.
Still, Iowa hasn’t played anyone as tough as Michigan State.
The Spartans have been just as strong at stopping the pass as the run, allowing only 130.5 yards per game.
“They’re playing with confidence, they have great senior leadership and veteran leadership,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “They have enough complexity in there where you can’t get comfortable and they always make it a challenge.”
Here are five things to watch when Iowa hosts Michigan State:
NOT A SPARTAN STRENGTH: Michigan State’s offense has lagged behind its defense. The Spartans could only muster a pair of red-zone field goals in the second half of a 17-13 loss at Notre Dame on Sept. 21. They’re averaging just 20 points a game against FBS competition. “You look at the reasons we lost the Notre Dame game. I feel like if we score in the red zone we’re obviously going to win the football game,” Dantonio said.
POWELL’S POTENTIAL: It sounds as though Iowa might finally start using explosive junior college wide receiver Damond Powell on more than a few plays a game. Powell has just four catches, but they’ve gone for 206 yards and two scores. Powell caught just one ball in last week’s 23-7 win at Minnesota – 74 yards on a screen for a touchdown. “We all knew he was fast, that’s one thing we all feel good about. I think he’s gaining confidence with every week and learning,” Ferentz said.
CLOSE SHAVES: It’s no surprise that two teams with such similar identities would typically play each other so close. Two of the last six meetings went to double overtime, with Iowa winning in 2007 and last season, and in 2009 the Hawkeyes won on a TD pass on the game’s final play to preserve a then-unbeaten season. Michigan State stuffed Shonn Greene and the Hawkeyes on fourth down to win in East Lansing in 2008. “That is the nature of it. So that’s what you’d expect, attention to detail in the inches make the difference,” Dantonio said.
MITTEN STATE HAWKEYES: Iowa has five players from the state of Michigan. Two of them have emerged as stars this season; wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley of Pontiac and defensive tackle Carl Davis of Sterling Heights. Martin-Manley is Iowa’s leading receiver and has two punt returns for TDs. Davis, a 315-pound junior who is finally healthy, has anchored an improving defensive line.
YARDS PER ATTEMPT: Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook has five touchdown passes and no picks since taking over as the Spartans starter. But his yards per attempt is a paltry 5.1. Iowa had the same issue a year ago, but Jake Rudock is averaging nearly 7.5 yards a throw in 2013.