Let the record show that I actually predicted this Big Ten Championship. I figured Michigan State would ride its elite quarterback and stable of veteran receivers roughshod over the East, and Iowa’s running game and hard-nosed defense would prey on an easy schedule to win the West.
Granted, I made this prediction last year, but that’s neither here nor there.
Both of these teams got here because they can play really good defense. The Hawkeyes are tied with Houston and San Diego State for best in the nation at per-game turnover margin, coming out either neutral or ahead in eleven of twelve games in 2015. Better yet, the Hawkeyes have been plus-two or better five times. Sparty is right behind at sixth.
Both teams have also benefited from fantastic quarterback play. Hawkeye signal-caller C.J. Beathard is 13-0 as a starter, and Connor Cook‘s accolades are well-known. He’s already the winningest quarterback in Michigan State history (33-4 as a starter), and among those wins are the 2013 Big Ten Championship game, the 2014 Rose Bowl, the 2015 Cotton Bowl, and a 3-0 record against Michigan. He struggled with injury off and on in 2015 but returned to shellack Penn State 55-16.
Michigan State has struggled to run the ball, ranking 109th in Rushing S&P+. This hasn’t bothered the Spartans yet because Cook manages to keep converting with his arm and a pair of talented receivers in Aaron Burbridge and Macgarrett Kings, and it may not Saturday against the Hawkeyes’ 56th-ranked Passing S&P+ Defense.
Likewise, the Hawkeyes would be wise to stick to their Jordan Canzeri– and LeShun Daniels-led ground game rather than leave Beathard to throw against the Spartans’ eighth-ranked Passing S&P+ Defense. In their upset of the Spartans, the Nebraska Cornhuskers’ previously-inept ground game managed 4.97 yards per carry and three scores. In their near-upset of the Spartans, the Purdue Boilermakers managed 5.16 and two scores. While normally stout against the run, teams have been able to grind yards against the Spartan defense when they’ve had to. I don’t anticipate a Hawkeye run game which has been both efficient (and explosive when necessary) to struggle to move the ball, especially with Beathard’s arm and mobility adding an extra element for the defense to keep an eye open for.
Each team has looked opportunistic rather than dominant this season: Michigan State took advantage of an Ohio State squad that didn’t show up to play, and recently Iowa has not looked like the same team that blew past Northwestern in October. If you only saw Iowa struggle past miserable Minnesota and Nebraska teams or Michigan State lose to Nebraska and let Rutgers hand around, you wouldn’t guess they were on the verge of a playoff appearance.
Bill Connelly at SB Nation gauges teams’ performances on “percentile performance,” meaning, how much better than average did you play. I examined each team’s performance in their last four games:
MICHIGAN STATE, last four games: at Nebraska (52%), Maryland (89%), at Ohio State (81%), Penn State (94%). Average: 79.0%
IOWA, last four games: at Indiana (59%), Minnesota (29%), Purdue (78%), at Nebraska (47%). Average: 53.3%
Both teams have flirted with the idea of losing a game to a lesser team this season on multiple occasions (and in fact Michigan State did just). But Sparty has been on the rampage since its loss and is coming in hotter.
Reminds me of that 2013 Michigan State team. Mark Dantonio has established himself as a big-game coach whose teams often play the best when the spotlight shines the brightest.
Which Team Can Play Its Game?
In a game between two fairly evenly-matched teams, you look first at which team is likeliest to commit a fatal error. Both of these teams have gotten here by allowing their opponent to do just that, and then sink their teeth in. Second, which team can dictate terms? Michigan State doesn’t mind getting into a shootout if it means they can shelve the iffy run game and let Connor Cook sling. (Cases in point: January’s Cotton Bowl air show against Baylor and September’s matchup with Vernon Adams and Oregon.) Iowa would love to keep the game slow and close.
I’m guessing we’ll see a little of each, as Michigan State has been a second half team offensively. Ultimately, given that Sparty has been better at sustaining drives thanks to superior quarterback play and has played more consistent defensively, I’m inclined to lean green, but there’s no chance Iowa sleepwalks into essentially a College Football Playoff quarterfinal.