Scouting report: Michigan State’s offense vs. Iowa’s defense

Maryland+wide+receiver+Jarvis+Davenport+tries+to+avoid+a+tackle+by+Iowa+line+back+Cole+Fisher+during+the+Iowa-Maryland+game+at+Kinnick+Stadium+on+Saturday%2C+Oct.+31%2C+2015.+The+Hawkeyes+defeated+the+Terrapins+to+stay+undefeated%2C+31-15.+%28The+Daily+Iowan%2FMargaret+Kispert%29

Maryland wide receiver Jarvis Davenport tries to avoid a tackle by Iowa line back Cole Fisher during the Iowa-Maryland game at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2015. The Hawkeyes defeated the Terrapins to stay undefeated, 31-15. (The Daily Iowan/Margaret Kispert)

The collective breath of Michigan State nation was drawn in when Connor Cook didn’t play in the second half of a game against Maryland on Nov. 14.

Soon, word spread of a shoulder injury that eventually kept him out against Ohio State. Of course, the Spartans still managed to upset the Buckeyes with their backup quarterback, but it was obvious they needed Cook back on offense.

Then, against Penn State, his name appeared back on the depth chart’s No. 1 spot — a few days later, he threw for 3 touchdowns.

For Iowa, stopping Cook has to be the top priority. If the Hawks can limit his completions and force him into a few mistakes, the game could turn into a slugfest — a type of game that has favored the Hawkeyes all season.

However, getting to the Michigan State quarterback won’t be easy. Led by first-team Big Ten selections Jack Allen and Jack Conklin, a very talented Michigan State line is now healthy after suffering a number of injuries throughout the season.

The group has only allowed 15 sacks on the season, third lowest in the Big Ten. That will make things difficult for Iowa defensive ends Nate Meier and Parker Hesse. Both are coming off solid games against Nebraska, but injured defense end Drew Ott’s presence will again be missed.

Iowa tackle Jaleel Johnson has also taken strides this season, making his battle with Allen — a center — all the more intriguing.

Hawkeye defensive coordinator Phil Parker will likely dial up some linebacker pressure, so expect to see Josey Jewell fly toward Cook more than once. Fellow linebacker Ben Niemann might still be out with a concussion, and it’s not clear whether he’s passed protocol yet.

If pressure doesn’t come, Iowa’s secondary could be in for a long day. Cook airs the ball out to his wide receivers 75 percent of the time with Big Ten Receiver of the Year Aaron Burbridge leading the way.

Burbridge leads the conference in both receiving yardage and catches, providing a huge test for Hawkeye cornerback Desmond King. It hasn’t been much of a problem all year for King, who may very well end up first-team All-American before the season is over.

So far, Cook hasn’t targeted his tight ends much at all — they make up only 17 percent of the Spartans’ receptions this season — but the few times he has, they’ve been effective. The position group has 8-of-26 receiving touchdowns this season, and it seems Cook likes to target them in the red zone.

While the Spartans don’t run the ball as they did with Le’Veon Bell or Jeremy Langford, the rushing attack has been mostly effective. The Spartans average close to four yards per carry and have found the end zone 13 times this season on the ground.

Michigan State has a trio of backs — L.J. Scott, Gerald Holmes and Madre London — who each has around 100 carries this season and will be up against one of the best rushing defenses in the nation.

The Hawkeyes have allowed just 1,320 rushing yards on the season, second best in the conference. Good defense has been one of Iowa’s calling cards this season, and in order to beat Michigan State, it will need to play nearly perfect team defense.

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