IOWA CITY (U of I) — University of Iowa head football coach Kirk Ferentz called the Hawkeyes’ bye week “productive,” but the challenge ahead is a Big Ten road opener at Michigan State.
The Spartans bring a 4-2 overall and 1-1 Big Ten record into Saturday’s game. After trailing 27-14 at the half at Indiana, Michigan State came alive in the second half, reeling off 17 unanswered points, while limiting the Hoosier offense to zero points, two first downs, and 37 yards of total offense.
Ferentz says the Spartans’ second-half performance is more indicative of the type of Michigan State team the Hawkeyes will face.
“If you look at that half, it gives you an indication of the kind of football team they have... the talent and potential they have,” Ferentz said at his Tuesday media gathering inside the Hayden Fry Football Complex. “They’ve got great players and are a physical football team. That’s why they’ve had 22 wins the past two years... if you’re not ready for that, it could be a long day.”
It will be the 44th meeting in the series between the two schools with the Hawkeyes holding a 22-19-2 advantage. Three of the last five meetings have been decided by seven points or less, but each of the last two contests — both played inside Kinnick Stadium — were lopsided. Michigan State won 37-21 last season, and Iowa won 37-6 in 2010.
Saturday’s game will feature two of the top running backs in the Big Ten in Iowa’s Mark Weisman and Michigan State’s Le’Veon Bell. Bell ranks second in the conference, and ninth nationally with 129.3 yards per game; Weisman is fourth in the league and 22nd nationally with an average of 103 yards (in three games).
“He (Le’Veon) is a very big and powerful guy,” said Ferentz. “Yet he’s mentally talented. You’ve seen him hurdle guys, which is pretty impressive for any back. If you break down at all, or somebody misses a gap, he can really hurt you, and he can run with some speed, too.”
Iowa’s running back depth will be bolstered with the return of sophomore Damon Bullock. Bullock, who started the first three games before going down with a concussion, gives the Hawkeyes a different dimension in the backfield to go along with Weisman’s bruising.
“In a limited amount, have shown they’re both capable, two different types of players, but both have done a good job this year,” said Ferentz. “We’re going to need them both moving forward.”
Ferentz says Iowa’s passing attack has taken steps forward in each of the past three games, and he sees more growth on the horizon. Senior James Vandenberg has completed 62 percent of his attempts (52-of-84) for 635 yards during the most recent three-game stretch with two touchdowns.
“The last three games we’ve looked a little more representative of what we hope to be, and that’s good,” said Ferentz. “I feel like we can throw it better than we have so far, including the last three games.”
While the team’s passing is on the upward trend, the competition level is also on the rise. The Hawkeyes face a Michigan State defense that is leading the Big Ten in total defense, surrendering an average of 272.3 yards in six games.
“We’re playing a team that is veteran on defense, talented and aggressive,” said Ferentz. “We’re going to need to keep improving. We’re making strides, but we’re not there yet.”
Saturday’s game will be Iowa’s first true road test of the season, although the Hawkeyes experienced a “road routine” in the season-opening 17-16 victory against Northern Illinois at Chicago’s Soldier Field.
“The trip to Chicago is a good exercise, but the environment in the stadium was not like we’ll face on our next four away games,” said Ferentz. “At least we went through the process of being on the road.
“At the end of the day, we have to try to block that out and be a little more focused than you would be at home. The biggest thing is still the team on the field... that’s more of a concern to us than maybe the stadium.”
Saturday’s game will be televised to a national audience on ESPN beginning at 11:01 a.m. (CT). Dave Pasch, Brian Griese and Jenn Brown will all the action.