Michigan State-Iowa series 'a man's game'

When Michigan State and Iowa face each other it's a grueling dogfight. Saturday should be no different, as the Spartans and Hawkeyes rely on physicality. Reese Strickland/Getty Images

When Michigan State and Iowa meet on Saturday, don't expect a work of art.

At least not unless your idea of art involves dust clouds and dented helmets. There isn't much fancy about how either of these teams approach the game. They just go right after one another.

"It's a man's game when you play Iowa," Michigan State linebacker Max Bullough said. "That's what you're in for."

And while we likely won't be in for an aesthetically pleasing offensive display, we can often count on a highly competitive game. The Spartans and Hawkeyes don't play for a trophy, and this isn't a game many people think about when discussing Big Ten rivalries. But few series have been as consistently close.

Since Mark Dantonio became head coach at Michigan State, four of the six games have been decided by seven points or less. The first one, in 2007, went to overtime, and last year's took double overtime before Iowa pulled out a 19-16 win in East Lansing.

"They've been very close games, and what separates those two teams game to game has been the inches," Dantonio said. "It's the details, the little things that either go your way or they don't. We've got to find those inches, and we've got to find them at Iowa City this year."

Razor-thin margins between Iowa and Michigan State aren't a new phenomenon. The Hawkeyes lead the all-time series 23-19-2. Iowa was Michigan State's Big Ten opener every year between 1985 and 1990. Those six games were decided by a total of 20 points.

"Not to sound like Pop Warner, but I can go back to the '80s and think about how many just really close games we had then," Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "It seems like it's been more of the same since Mark came back to Michigan State.

"I don't know if I can tell you why that is, but we've had some fantastic games. And in close games like that, it usually does come back to always a handful of things that take place that really impact the game. My guess is we're probably looking at another one of those games this week."

One reason the games have usually gone down to the wire might be the similarity in styles.

Dantonio said that when he took over the Spartans, he looked to Iowa as the model to emulate.

"I said, there's a program we felt was doing it the right way, doing it with toughness," he said. "And we wanted to take some of the things that they did and implement those aspects into our program. Not necessarily things conceptually, but the mentality."

Iowa also has some ties to Michigan State, particularly on the defensive side. Current defensive coordinator Phil Parker was an All-Big Ten defensive back for the Spartans and later an assistant under George Perles. His predecessor at Iowa, Norm Parker (no relation), coached from 1983-94 in East Lansing and served as Perles' defensive coordinator.

The schemes and philosophies of both teams have clear differences. The Hawkeyes don't blitz much on defense while the Spartans are very aggressive under coordinator Pat Narduzzi. Both have pro style offenses, but Iowa likes to run the ball more than the Spartans do. But they both share a common trait.

"It's definitely true to say they play physical," Hawkeyes senior linebacker James Morris said of Michigan State. "That's how they beat people. They try to grind it out and wear you down. That's something similar to what we try to do here at Iowa."

And that can make for some less than artistic games. Last year in East Lansing, each team scored only one touchdown, and Iowa had to ride workhorse back Mark Weisman down the field for a score with 55 seconds left to force overtime. Weisman had 116 of the Hawkeyes' 123 rushing yards.

A year later, Iowa is still pounding it on the ground with Weisman but has a more consistent offensive line and a quarterback in Jake Rudock who can make plays on the move. Michigan State's continued offensive struggles are well documented, but Dantonio's team did have a bye week to tinker with things and get quarterback Connor Cook more comfortable.

We will see strength versus strength. Iowa is eighth nationally in rushing yards, having run for more than 200 yards in each game this season. Michigan State ranks second in the FBS in rushing yards allowed per game at 57.25.

Still, this game likely will boil down to who hits the hardest, as it almost always does.

"It's a test of the wills when you play these games," Bullough said. "I think the team that's won the line of scrimmage is the team that's been able to win the past few years."

That might not equal a conventionally pretty game on Saturday, but it should be an old school Big Ten beauty.