Dec. 4, 2015
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Editor’s Note: The following first appeared in the University of Iowa’s Hawk Talk Daily, an e-newsletter that offers a daily look at the Iowa Hawkeyes, delivered free each morning to thousands of fans of the Hawkeyes worldwide. To receive daily news from the Iowa Hawkeyes, sign up HERE.
By JAMES ALLAN
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Saturday’s Big Ten Championship Game will all but be decided at the line of scrimmage.
The third-ranked University of Iowa football team is a run-first offense, averaging 203.6 yards per game. The Hawkeyes have run for more than 100 yards in 12 games, including six 200-yard rushing outputs. Iowa averages 404.2 yards per game of total offense.
No. 5 Michigan State prides itself on stopping the run, finishing in the top 25 nationally in rush defense five times in the last six seasons. The Spartans surrender 118.2 yards on the ground — 16th-best nationally — and have held five opponents to less than 100 yards.
Something has to give.
“Anytime you play a championship game against a team like Michigan State, you have to match their energy level and exceed it in order to beat a good team like that. This game is about performing and executing the best we can. If we do that, we can live with the result.”
Senior Austin Blythe
“This game is going to be decided in the trenches,” said sophomore offensive tackle Cole Croston. “They have a good defensive line, and we have to be prepared to go after it. That’s how it is every game, but whoever wins in the trenches is probably going to win this game. That’s what we’re working for.”
“It will be about who executes better and finishes more,” said senior Austin Blythe, a second-team All-Big Ten selection. “Michigan State is a good program with good coaches and players. We’re going to have to be on the top of our game and go out and play.”
The Hawkeyes got a crash course in the Spartans’ defensive scheme Sept. 19 in a 27-24 victory over Pittsburgh. Panthers’ head coach, Pat Narduzzi, was Michigan State’s defensive coordinator from 2007-14. The Hawkeyes had 363 yards against a blitz-heavy Pitt defense, but only 105 yards came on the ground. It was Iowa’s season-low rushing output.
“We kind of got a practice game, so at least it is not totally out of our minds,” said UI head coach Kirk Ferentz. “(Michigan State) is similar (to Pitt) from a defensive standpoint, and hopefully it will be some help, but that also helps (Michigan State) get some exposure to what we might be thinking.”
Blythe sees the similarities on film between the two programs, but the Spartans’ athleticism takes Michigan State’s defense to another level.
“Michigan State has athletic, big guys, and they’re going to make plays,” said Blythe. “They’ll come after you, will be up, and ready to go.”
Come 2016, senior defensive end Shilique Calhoun will be playing on Sundays. The three-time first-team All-Big Ten selection has 8.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss this season, and he has 25 career sacks. His counterpart, Lawrence Thomas is a 6-foot-4, 305-pound bull-rusher.
“They have a speed guy (Calhoun), who is an athlete, who will get around the edge,” said Croston. “He’s a good, NFL-caliber player. (Thomas) is more physical, he will run you over. You have to take those things into consideration when you’re getting ready.”
Iowa is up for the challenge. It will be strength-on-strength in the trenches. Let the best team win.
“Anytime you play a championship game against a team like Michigan State, you have to match their energy level and exceed it in order to beat a good team like that,” said Blythe. “This game is about performing and executing the best we can. If we do that, we can live with the result.”
The Big Ten Championship Game will kick off from Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis at 7:17 p.m. (CT), and it will be televised on FOX with Gus Johnson, Joel Klatt, and Molly McGrath on the call.