Saturday’s Big Ten Championship Game is essentially a play-in game for the College Football Playoff. Considering Iowa has won fewer than 10 games in five consecutive seasons and 12-0 for the first time in school history, its unblemished record is surprising to most, but that doesn’t mean its players feel as though they’re treading water.
“In a sense it is like the playoffs are starting now,” Iowa redshirt freshman defensive end Parker Hesse said this week. “But the only way to get it done, even with the playoff system, is to focus on what is in front of you. You can’t look too far ahead or get caught up in that, you have to be in the here and now.”
The Spartans are coming off a 55-16 drubbing of Penn State, which is impressive in a vacuum. Considering that the Nittany Lions are an outfit with a top-30 scoring defense, and had allowed just four teams to score 25-plus points entering Saturday — none put up more than 38 points or better than 6.2 yards per play, mind you — the feat is even more notable. It was downright unholy what senior wide receiver Aaron Burbridge did to Penn State’s secondary early in the third quarter, incorporating two spin moves and a summersault into his highlight-reel touchdown.
Michigan State’s passing attack — spearheaded by senior quarterback Connor Cook — against Iowa’s rabid defense is the matchup to watch.
For as much acclaim as Iowa’s defensive unit has garnered, it ranks 16th in defensive efficiency, 27th in Football Outsiders’ Defensive S&P+ rankings, and has allowed the last four opponents score at least 20 points. Michigan State’s defense ranks higher in efficiency than Iowa’s, and has held each of its last three opponents to fewer than 17 points.
TDesmond King, Iowa’s junior defensive back and recently dubbed the top defensive back in the conference, leads the nation with eight interceptions—more picks than 34 teams have produced this season.
“Desmond King grew up right here in Detroit, still can’t believe he got away,” Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio said this week. “He’s an outstanding player: great cover guy, good tackler, great ball skills.”
Iowa’s pass defense improves in the second half—opponent passer ratings drop from 111.1 to 105.2, and 10 of Iowa’s 17 interceptions have come in the game’s final 30 minutes. Much of this is due to Kirk Ferentz’s outfit rushing out to a lead and forcing opponents take to the air in an attempt to spark a comeback, but the upshot remains unchanged: Expect Iowa’s secondary to be menacing in crunch time.
Cook has thrown a Big Ten-leading 24 touchdown passes this season, and just four of his 337 passes have been intercepted, giving him one of the best touchdown-to-interception ratios in the country. Burbridge is the only receiver in the Big Ten who has eclipsed the 1,000-yard receiving threshold (1,158; 13th most in the nation), and he was just named the conference’s receiver of the year. He has garnered more than 35 percent of the team’s targets this season, per NCAA Savant, and 5.88 percent of the team’s red-zone targets, ranking eighth nationally in total targets. Burbridge pulls in 6.3 receptions per game, produces 15.4 yards per reception, and if he gets into the open field, Michigan State will be tough to slow down, even with King likely to draw the matchup.
Iowa defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer needs to apply pressure on Cook, and help the Hawkeyes maintain their dominance in the turnover battle (Iowa and Michigan State are tied for fourth in the nation in turnover margin). If Cook is able to bide his time in the pocket and find his go-to target, it could be an easy win for the Spartans. Last week against Penn State, in his first game since coming off a shoulder injury, Cook put forth arguably his best performance of the season.
Iowa’s defensive line is a middle-of-the-road unit at procuring sacks, and Michigan State’s veteran offensive line has keep Cook upright most of the season (Spartans allow 1.25 sacks per game, the 19th best rate in the country), but no team likes being in third-and-long situations, and Cook is particularly ineffective in them.
If the Hawkeyes can squelch Michigan State’s inconsistent running game on the earlier downs of the possession and put Cook in a third-and-long, need-to-throw position, that would be the time to dial up pressure. King is particularly talented at making plays on third-down passing attempts and will have more opportunities to generate an interception if Cook’s put in arguably his least effective position as a quarterback.
Should King lock down Burbridge and Spencer dial up effective pressure on Cook, Iowa could ride its wear-you-out-till-you-hyperventilate offense to a win and a berth in the College Football Playoff.