While State College will be the center of the college football world Saturday, another significant Big Ten game is taking place hundreds of miles away in Iowa City. Michigan State and Iowa meet at Kinnick Stadium in a matchup with enormous implications for the Legends division. Both teams control their own fate with only one division loss (in Michigan State's case, just one Big Ten loss).
Michigan State will try to do what few Big Ten teams have accomplished this season -- win a big game on the road. The Spartans are 1-2 away from East Lansing this season and got spanked 37-6 last year at Iowa, which handed Michigan State its first and only regular-season loss.
I caught up with Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio on Wednesday to discuss the matchup.
When did Iowa first come to mind as a program you wanted to model Michigan State after when you took over in East Lansing?
Mark Dantonio: When I was here before, toward the tail end of my time here as an assistant, Kirk Ferentz had just been hired [as Iowa's coach]. They were a football team that for the first couple years struggled a little bit, but over the course of time, when we played them when I was at Ohio State, and also when I was at Cincinnati, they made their way in this conference. They gradually continued to get better until they were at the top of the conference. And they've been there pretty traditionally since then. Always in contention.
So when I became the head football coach here, I looked at football programs that have some similarities to ours in terms of what challenges they may have, those types of things. And I thought, 'Here's Iowa, good defensive football team, built on toughness, built on stability, continuity on their coaching staff, good fan support, but not one of the programs that were set up for the ages, I guess.' So I felt like that was a program to try and emulate, and we went about our business to try and do those things.
Our coaching staff has remained intact for the most part, losing two guys who became head football coaches [Don Treadwell and Dan Enos]. We've gradually made our way. We've been able to compete for a championship, and we find ourselves in the thick of things now. We're working toward it. We're not there yet.
In terms of players, did you feel you had to recruit similar types of players as Iowa? They've done really well talking walk-ons and kids that might not be the most decorated recruits and have gotten them to the NFL.
MD: We put an emphasis on recruiting who's going to fit our program as a person, number one, and number two, who's going to fit our program's needs. I think Iowa does the same thing. They don't get caught up in how many stars are behind someone's name. A great example of that with us is Le'Veon Bell. It was us and Bowling Green, and we offered him and he came here and has become a tremendous player. We have some four-star players and that type of thing as well, but this program, we're trying to recruit to our needs as much as anything. We spend a lot of time looking at the player, evaluating that guy, not just on film but in person as well.
Iowa has been able to compete with the traditional power programs in the league. Where is Michigan State in that realm in your mind?
MD: We're coming. We've beaten Ohio State. We've beaten Michigan four straight years. We're competing on equal footing with Penn State, 2-2 in the four [previous] years since we've been here. We're 3-2 against Wisconsin. The one program we've not got is the one that we're trying to emulate. But we've had close games with them, other than last year. It'll be a great challenge for us, but we're excited about the opportunity, and we're excited about where we're at. We recruited a lot of these guys -- Kirk Cousins and others -- with the idea that we can get to this next step, we can get to a championship-type game and we can get to a Rose Bowl. Now we're in control of our own destiny, and we can see the light at the end of the tunnel in that respect. Now it's important we meet the challenge.
How big of a step is this game, then, in terms of taking that jump as a program?
MD: It's a statement game, I think, in terms of going away from home and winning on the road, especially after last year and things. It's a challenge game. And usually when you're challenged, you tend to take it personal. But a tough challenge, a good football team we're playing, well-coached. Their team is built on toughness and execution as well.
You've been open about how your season is going to be largely decided on the road. Obviously, you had a rough outing last time at Nebraska. How have guys handle the road environments so far?
MD: We've played three on the road, and some tough ones. We've gone down to Notre Dame, we've played at Ohio State and we've played at Nebraska. We're 1-2 right now, so we've got two more left, and both of them will be challenges. You evaluate that at the end, but we need to go more mentally prepared maybe than we were this past time at Nebraska. We have to create our momentum. Momentum won't be created by the crowd.
How do you feel about the offense coming out of the Minnesota game and into this one?
MD: I felt Kirk Cousins played very well. He only has five interceptions for the entire season. He makes great decisions. Have to continue to try and run the ball more effectively and keep balance so we can protect our quarterback, and then we have to just protect him, period. Which we've been able to do. Explosive plays are always very, very important. When we've gotten eight explosive plays or more [in a game], we're 35-5. So that's where it's at. We've got to find explosive plays, either running the football or passing it.
And defensively, we've played pretty well on the road. How do you feel about that group going against a potent offense in Iowa?
MD: It's another challenge for us. They do a great job running the football. They've got a great offensive line, a big, powerful back [Marcus Coker]. He leads the league in rushing. A big-play wide receiver [Marvin McNutt], a quarterback [James Vandenberg] who makes good decisions, can get out of the pocket. So it's a challenge for us. To play well on the road, we've got to play well in the red zone and come up with turnovers and try to take the crowd out of the game and be relentless.
Everyone's new to divisional play, but how do you address that with your players?
MD: They're very aware of what we have to do. We're in control, but all things are not lost if we lose. Our players understand that. It's exciting to look at all the possibilities because there are possibilities across the board on both sides of these divisions, and that's exciting for college football.