Five keys to Michigan State beating Iowa in the B1G Championship
On paper, Michigan State has the advantage. The Spartans are the more talented team with more big-game experience, and according to some, that’s what will put them over the top on Saturday in Indianapolis.
Besides win the battle at the line of scrimmage and score more points — a bit too cliché for any preview — here are the keys to Michigan State handing Iowa its first loss and advancing to its first College Football Playoff.
You could say this is a key for every game, but it’s especially true against Iowa. The Hawkeyes have pass-catchers, but they don’t have a ton of downfield weapons. They were so successful during the regular season because they put themselves in third-and-manageable situations. That allowed C.J. Beathard to scramble for a first down if there wasn’t anything there. Asking a quarterback — and one that still isn’t at 100 percent — to pick up 3rd-and-15 with his legs is a tall task. Michigan State’s best chance of getting Iowa out of its comfort zone is by blowing up plays in the backfield on first and second down. Shilique Calhoun and Malik McDowell have been tremendous, but they’ll have to be at their absolute best to disrupt the Iowa rushing attack.
-Watch those slippery Iowa tight ends
If there’s an underrated aspect of the Iowa offense, it’s the tight end position. For some reason, it seems like George Kittle and Henry Krieger Coble are always wide open when Iowa needs a big play. Kittle is more of the red-zone target and Krieger Coble is the possession guy. The cousins have the ability to slip past a defense with teams so focused on shutting down Iowa’s run game. It’s natural to assume that when Iowa lines up in a double tight end set, it’s going to be a run. But the duo can make teams pay for overcommitting. They can be used in play-action effectively, which is why Iowa is so good on third down. If the Spartans aren’t disciplined, Iowa has two guys that can make game-changing plays.
-Attack Greg Mabin…and avoid Desmond King
Single coverage on Aaron Burbridge is usually money in the bank. Even double coverage sometimes isn’t enough. Well, against King, that might not be the case. Few cornerbacks — if any — have been better on 50-50 balls than King. It’s why he’s the only defensive player among the five Walter Camp Award player of the year finalists. He’s been that good. This is a game in which Macgarrett Kings and R.J. Shelton could have to do the heavy lifting. Both have had up-and-down seasons, but it hasn’t mattered because of Burbridge’s emergence. But Connor Cook might elect to avoid the jump balls against King and look for the more intermediate routes with his other targets. There will be pressure on Mabin — a bigger, more physical corner — to shut down the short underneath routes and make open-field tackles. If the situation warrants it, Cook has no problem breaking off six and seven-yard throws and methodically marching the Spartans downfield.
-Keep Beathard in the pocket
Against J.T. Barrett and Christian Hackenberg, Michigan State prevented two of the B1G’s best quarterbacks from doing what they wanted to do. If they got out of the pocket, they were usually running for their lives. That trend needs to continue against a guy like Beathard, who is most vulnerable when rollouts aren’t an option. He doesn’t have to make a lot of quick decisions in the pocket, which is why he’s able to keep broken plays alive. Calhoun and Lawrence Thomas have to keep contain on Beathard. That includes the naked bootleg plays, which Iowa will run in short-yardage situations. The more uncomfortable the Spartans get Beathard, the better chance they have of forcing three-and-outs.
-Give Cook a chance late
If you were following along closely, you know I said the same thing about Beathard. When the game is on the line, both quarterbacks are capable of coming up with a clutch go-ahead drive. Perhaps that’s why they’re squaring off in a national quarterfinal. There’s a reason that whenever Cook’s name is brought up, the word ‘winner’ is likely to follow. He played in countless big moments over the course of his career, so there’s nothing that can overwhelm him at this point. That means Michigan State has to be within a possession late. The Spartans can’t expect Cook to dig them out of a two or three-score lead. Not that I think that will happen, but Iowa’s running game could easily keep MSU off the field and not even give Cook a last-ditch attempt. If Michigan State’s season is up for grabs, No. 18 has to have the ball in his hands.