When Mark Dantonio returned to East Lansing seven years ago as MSU’s 24th head football coach, he looked to Iowa as a model.
In the Hawkeyes, he saw a template for how he wanted to shape his program, one built with modest recruits on a foundation of toughness, discipline and player development.
Throughout his tenure, Dantonio has utilized a similar formula to significantly elevate MSU’s profile as the Big Ten’s winningest program since 2008.
“They can play with anybody, anytime, at any place and that’s who we can be,” Dantonio said. “That’s what we tried to emulate somewhat, and I think that’s the case.”
Despite his overall success leading the Spartans, Dantonio is just 2-4 against the Hawkeyes and head coach Kirk Ferentz, who, in his 15th year, is by far the longest-tenured coach in the conference.
The Spartans (3-1 overall, 0-0 Big Ten) head to Iowa City, Iowa, for their Big Ten opener at noon, but it’s the Hawkeyes that appear to be mimicking MSU’s blueprint for success in 2013.
Both programs have long been known for power running attacks, but at No. 7 nationally in total defense, Iowa’s (4-1, 1-0) strength lies on that side of the ball, similar to the Spartans.
The similar DNA between the programs likely has contributed to four of the past six meetings being decided by a touchdown or less. Last year’s matchup ended with senior quarterback Andrew Maxwell’s interception in double overtime to seal a 19-16 loss at home.
“I don’t know if I can tell you why that is, but we’ve had some fantastic games,” Ferentz said. “And in close games like that it usually does come back to there’s always a handful of things that take place that really impact the game.”
True to form, though, the Hawkeyes remain a hard-nosed, grind-it-out offense led by 6-foot, 236-pound running back Mark Weisman, the fourth-leading rusher in the country with 615 yards.
First-year starter Jake Rudock gives Iowa a bit of a running threat at quarterback, and his leading receiver, Kevonte Martin-Manley, has returned two punts to the house.
Fresh off their first bye week, the Spartans will bring their No. 1-ranked defense to Kinnick Stadium.
Sophomore quarterback Connor Cook moved on from the late-game benching drama at Notre Dame and remains the starter this week, with the same gang of skill players around him.
Multiple players will continue to rotate among the offensive line, as they have all season, and perhaps newly-converted tight end Jamal Lyles, a redshirt freshman, will find a way to contribute in the passing game after an extra week of practice.
What appears to be a closely-matched game in MSU’s first week of conference play could prove to be monumental if the Spartans hope to contend in the Legends Division.
Regardless of outcome, Saturday’s contest will set the tone for the Spartans’ course through the Big Ten, and it begins with the team most similar to themselves.
“We’ve set the tone, set the standards for championships and that’s what we’re chasing,” Dantonio said. “It goes through Iowa City at this point. That’s all we know. We’ve got to move our football team.”