Spartans taking aim at targeted Hawkeyes

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Iowa has encountered and overcome many different challenges in its perfect season, so it's no surprise the Hawkeyes find a new obstacle in their path this week.

For the first time in 2009, Iowa is officially the team to beat in the Big Ten. The sixth-ranked Hawkeyes can thank Ohio State for their new title. From here on out, Iowa will have a black and gold target on its back.

Being the targeted team elicits different responses from different teams. Teams like Florida and USC tend to embrace it. Teams like Cal and Clemson tend to fall apart.

How will the Hawkeyes respond? Business as usual.

"It’s probably different for other teams, but we come to play every game and every week," defensive end Adrian Clayborn said. "The opponents, they’ll probably play harder against us. But we’re going to come out the same way."

For Clayborn, it means being at the front of the pack coming onto the field. Find any YouTube clip of Iowa's field entrances and you'll see No. 94, front and center.

"I hate being in the locker room," he explained. "I just want to get back on the field."

He gets his chance Saturday night at Spartan Stadium, as the Hawkeyes take on a Michigan State team hoping to knock them off their pedestal (Big Ten Network, 7 p.m. ET). These aren't simply Sparty spoilers. Michigan State can put itself right in the middle of the Big Ten title race with a victory.

The Spartans are sizzling after winning three straight and have a favorable schedule the rest of the way with no Ohio State and Penn State coming to East Lansing. A win would move Michigan State into a first-place tie in the league standings with as many as three other teams.

"A big-game opportunity," Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio said. "This is an opportunity to play in a football game that you should remember and be able to tell your children [about]."

Dantonio often talks to his players about "playing up," or beating the Big Ten's best teams. Though the Spartans went 9-3 in the regular season last fall, they lost to league co-champs Penn State and Ohio State by a combined score of 94-25.

Dantonio hasn't stressed playing up as much this year, as the Spartans were more concerned with climbing out of a 1-3 hole, but the theme rings true this week with Iowa in town.

"This is a definite chance for us to play up," star linebacker Greg Jones said. "This is what our season's been all about. This game is going to define us as a team, as individuals, how tough we are and how we compare to Iowa."

Michigan State has won four straight home games against Iowa, including a defense-fueled 16-13 victory last year. The night kickoff should add to the atmosphere, though the Hawkeyes are 2-0 in night games this year.

"This is pretty much the exact same situation as last season," Spartans wide receiver Blair White said. "We're in a game that, if we win, we can be sitting atop the Big Ten standings. Last year, we came out and laid an egg against Ohio State and then again against Penn State. We've got to learn from that.

"We're 4-3, so that might not look as good, but Iowa, being the sixth team in the country, what more could you ask for? You want to play the guys at the top."

And Iowa wants to stay there.

"We’re just trying to keep up the momentum," Hawkeyes safety Brett Greenwood said, "and see where it takes us."