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A preview of what the numbers say about Iowa's defensive matchup against Stanford's offense.

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There are few teams in college football nowadays that play a smash mouth brand of football in a similar manner to Kirk Ferentz and his Iowa Hawkeyes, but Stanford fits that bill. The Cardinal are a team known for running the ball down your throat and playing hard-nosed, physical defense. And this year's team is cut from the same cloth, but with maybe one big difference: this year's team is carried by an extremely productive offense, while the defense is very young.

The defense has not been completely terrible this season, but they have taken a step back after losing 9 starters from last year's death squad. The offense, though, is getting the job done in 2015. They still line up in power formations and hammer away at the opponent all game long, while picking and choosing their times to keep the defense honest with the play action pass. But Heisman runner-up Christian McCaffrey has exploded onto the scene this college football season and is a huge part of why the Cardinal are scoring 37 points per game.

Needless to say, this is a huge game for the Hawkeyes. Iowa hasn't been to a Rose Bowl since 1991 (I was 3 years old), and that game didn't go so well. The Rose Bowl holds a special place in the hearts of Iowa fans, and, really, who knows when we will get the chance to see our team play in this game again. Because of the importance of this game, I think it's worth looking at more than just the macro data on how these teams compare, and instead I want to look at some of the more granular things that we don't always look at when previewing a football game. That being said, I am going to move away from using THOR+ to look at the Rose Bowl match up because it doesn't offer the same level of analysis that other stats like Bill Connelly's S&P+ and Brian Fremeau's FEI do. So, for the rest of this piece, I will try to be clear about the stats I am using, but if you have any questions, I would urge you to go here and here for more information. Also, click on the links for complete statistical profiles for Iowa and Stanford.

Now, let's talk about Iowa's defense and Stanford's offense today, and we will dissect the other side of the ball next time.

When Stanford has the Ball


Per Drive Stats Points Per Drive Points Per Value Drive Points Per Long Drive Yards Per Stop Touchdown Percentage
Stanford Offense 173 116 215 191 176
Iowa Defense 129 110 162 122 141

If you are wondering what the chart above is showing you, it is the five factors for winning a football game -- a concept created by Bill Connelly. I took the each team's numbers in each factor and scaled them so that 100 = average, while anything above 100 is above the FBS average and anything below is worse than the FBS average.

You can see that, from a five factor perspective, this looks like a very good match up. Iowa has a huge advantage in limiting explosive plays and a 5 percentage point one in forcing turnovers this season. Meanwhile, Stanford's offensive efficiency (keeping the chains moving) and ability to finish drives with points look like pretty big advantages in their favor, even though Iowa is also above average in both categories. Finally, both units on this side of the ball, are set up with good field position by their counterparts on a regular basis.

On a per drive basis, we get more evidence that both units are very talented on this side of the ball, but Stanford's offense seems to be a little stronger. The Cardinal are literally a top five team in the country in all five of those per drive categories shown above. Points per value drive (points scored on drives starting in your own territory that reach at least your opponent's 30) is their worst category, but their overall points per drive total is just fine thanks to their insane ability to score points on long drives (drives that start inside your own 20). Even on drives where they don't score, they still tally a bunch of yards in the process. But they score, and they usually score touchdowns when they do put points on the scoreboard.

As for Iowa, their bend-don't-break defense is good at keeping points (particularly touchdowns) off the scoreboard, while making it difficult for their opponents to put together long scoring drives against them. The Hawkeyes are above average in every defensive per-drive category, but they don't appear to have a distinct advantage over Stanford's offense in any one area.

So that's the overview. Let's dig a little deeper and see if we can find why each team has the rating they have.


Rushing S&P+ Rank Standard Down Rush% Passing Down Rush% Efficiency Explosiveness Overall Rushing
Stanford Offense 21 117 100 123 90 115
Iowa Defense 22 89 89 107 119 116

Since Stanford runs the ball so much, let's start there. As evidence for that last statement, you can see that David Shaw likes to run the ball 17% more than the average FBS team on standard downs (downs that are not considered passing situations). That's actually more than Iowa's offense runs the ball on standard downs. Once they get to passing downs, though, they show more normal run/pass tendencies.

The thing to notice about Stanford, and what matches up with what we see on the radar chart above, is that they are not very explosive in the run game, but they are extremely efficient. In other words, they aren't a huge threat to hit a home run on the ground, but they consistently move the chains.

stanford rushing

As you can see from the game log (courtesy of cfbstats), their offense runs the ball a ton and they rack up a lot of yards as a result. However, a bit of good news for Iowa here, is that against actual defenses, Stanford's rushing game has regularly averaged 4 yards per carry or less. That hasn't always spelled doom for David Shaw and company this season, but their two losses did come in games in which they ran for 4.3 yards per carry or less.

Now, I'm betting you guys are wondering how an offense with Christian McCaffrey isn't considered explosive? Well, it's because of the sheer number of carries that he has had this season.


McCaffrey has carried the ball 319 times on the season for 1847 yards and 8 touchdowns, which is second only to Alabama's Derrick Henry. When you run the ball that many times, you are bound to break off some big run plays. However, if we check the list of long runs from scrimmage for 2015, McCaffrey's name does show up high on the list for runs of 10+ and 20+ yards. But once you get to carries of 30+ and more, he falls down the list. On average, he's good for about one 20 yard run per game, but anything 30+ occurs about once every other game for him. This is not to say that McCaffrey doesn't make big plays (he does), but his ability to carry the ball 25 times per game and consistently move the chains 5 yards at a time appears to be better than his ability to hit a home run.

Explosiveness aside, McCaffrey has talent and Stanford uses his skills in a number of ways. We know that David Shaw loves the power run game, but it isn't just about lining up in the I-formation and hitting you in the mouth. They do that, of course, but they also incorporate the zone read with mobile quarterback Kevin Hogan, and they even have a wildcat package for McCaffrey. (Sorry about the glare from the Christmas lights.)

But for as good as McCaffrey is, Iowa shouldn't ignore Kevin Hogan, either. He is a threat to keep the ball on the aforementioned zone read or on the option:

At 6.6 yards per carry (adjusted for sacks), Hogan's legs are just as important to Stanford's offense as C.J. Beathard's are to Iowa.

For the Hawkeyes, I think Stanford is actually a pretty good match up for this defense. They like to run the ball, and Iowa's defense welcomes an opponent that wants to line up and play smash mouth football all game long. Most teams have been pass-heavy against the Hawkeyes this season, but Stanford is going to look to establish the run. The Hawkeyes don't generally give up big plays in the run game, and I think they can limit McCaffrey on the ground, within reason. The big question for Iowa's run defense will come later in the game. I will cover that more when I get to the section on both lines, but if it gets late in the game and Iowa's defense has been on the field a lot, Stanford's punishing run game could wear the defense down. But unless we see that exact situation, I think Iowa matches up well with Stanford here, so I can't give anyone the advantage.

Advantage: Push


Passing S&P+ Rank Standard Down Pass% Passing Down Pass% Efficiency Explosiveness Overall Passing
Stanford Offense 7 74 100 124 109 132
Iowa Defense 46 117 105 109 112 106

The Cardinal actually rate out better in the pass game, despite being a run-first team. The Cardinal throw the ball on standard downs 26% less often than the average FBS team, which is different than what Iowa has seen this season. Most teams playing Iowa this year have find no success on the ground and instead want to throw the ball. One thing to notice is that Stanford's passing game is actually both efficient and explosive. That's because the Cardinal set up the pass so well with the run that their play-action passes have the opportunity to beat the defense over the top. Of course, their real strength still lies in the ability to stay on schedule and pick up first downs in a methodical way.

stanford passing

You can see that in most games this season, Stanford's yards per attempt has been in the 11-12 yard range. That's... pretty good. Only twice have Kevin Hogan and Co. been held to under 7 yards per attempt on the year. For the season, Hogan has thrown the ball 283 times and completed 68.6% of his passes for 2644 yards (9.3 yards per attempt), 24 touchdowns, and only 7 interceptions.

So who are Hogan's main weapons to receive the football?


You can see a cluster of about four guys that Hogan really likes to target through the air. The trio of McCaffrey, wide receiver Michael Rector, and tight end Austin Hooper make up a little over half of Hogan's targets on the season. Toss in wideout Devon Cajuste and you have about 65% of Stanford's receiving game.

Let's start by talking about McCaffrey. The running back who ran for 1847 yards and 8 touchdowns on the season, also caught 41 passes for 540 yards and 4 touchdowns. McCaffrey is scary enough as a running back, but it's him as a receiver (and quarterback and kick returner) that should really worry Iowa. Stanford has some other legitimate receiving threats, but McCaffrey is catching almost 84% of the passes that have come his way this season. With nightmares of David Johnson still fresh in our mind, McCaffrey against Iowa's linebackers in space is a little worrisome. Chris Brown has highlighted McCaffrey on the Y-Stick, Halfback Option, which is a play that isolates McCaffrey on a linebacker in man-to-man coverage. Now, Iowa is primarily a zone team, but don't think that Stanford won't find ways to get McCaffrey the ball in space with linebackers trailing him.

After McCaffrey, Michael Rector and Devon Cajuste are Hogan's primary wide receiver targets. At 6'1", 189 lbs., Rector is more of the deep threat, as 15 of his 32 catches have gone for 10+ yards this season and 6 have gone for 30+. Cajuste is more of a possession guy, standing at 6'4", 227 lbs.

Lastly, it should come as no surprise that David Shaw loves to use the tight end, which means Austin Hooper is a big part of the offense for Stanford. He sees just about as many targets as McCaffrey and Rector, but unsurprisingly isn't quite as explosive as the other guys (he is a tight end, after all). He's got 6 touchdowns on the season, though, and is dangerous in the red zone off of play action.

So how does Iowa match up with the passing game? Well, pretty good, overall. With guys like Desmond King and Jordan Lomax, Iowa's secondary has been a big strength this season. However, if you go back to the table above, Stanford has quite an advantage in the efficiency section, which could be an area of concern. The Hawkeyes are good at limiting big pass plays, but their defense can be beat if the opposing team can consistently move the chains with short passes. That is part of Iowa's bend-don't-break philosophy that aims to keep absolutely everything in front of it and force the offense to execute perfectly in short chunks in order to score. The Hawkeyes are content to let you move the ball a little bit at a time, in the hopes of eventually forcing you to punt or settle for a field goal. But those are things Stanford hasn't had to do much of this season.

Stanford doesn't have a wide receiver or tight end that I think Desmond King and the Hawkeye secondary will struggle to keep under wraps. However, the one area where I think Stanford has an advantage is with Christian McCaffrey matched up on Iowa's linebackers. The linebacking core has looked much improved this season in pass coverage, but I'm still worried that we will see a lot of them trailing McCaffrey in coverage for a large part of this game. Because of that and Stanford's efficiency, I have to give the Cardinal the advantage here.

Advantage: Stanford

In the Trenches

Trenches Pass Blocking/Pressure Run Blocking/Disruption Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate
Stanford Offense 99 108 106 118 117
Iowa Defense 117 99 116 101 82

Looking at the line play, here is where I start to get concerned as the game goes on. Iowa's defensive line does seem to have an advantage in pressuring the quarterback on pass plays, and when it comes to not allowing quality rushing opportunities for the opposing team. (Opportunity rate is a stat that tells you how often an offensive line is able to give their running back 5 yards of rushing room to operate.) You can see Stanford is 6% above average in providing opportunities for McCaffrey, but Iowa is 16% better than the norm at stopping opponents before they get to 5 yards of rushing. These are good advantages for Iowa to have, but Stanford is a team that runs the ball more than they pass it and they are extremely efficient doing so, despite not being as explosive.

What really is a matter of concern here, are the other three categories. First of all, run blocking/disruption is shorthand for adjusted line yards, which is a stat that attempts to separate how many yards per run the offensive line is responsible for by themselves. Thus, Stanford's offensive line is 8% above average, while opposing offensive lines against Iowa have been right around the FBS average. Next, we have power success rate, which is a measure of how often a team was able to convert on 3rd or 4th down and 2 yards to go or shorter, or also 1st and 2nd down and goal from the 2-yard line or closer. Stanford's offense lives for those type of power situations.

Finally, and most worrisome, is the stuff rate. This is a stat that indicates how often a team's rusher is stopped at the line of scrimmage or for a loss. This is something that rarely happens for Stanford, and also something that rarely happens to Iowa's opponents.

If we go back to the Big Ten Championship Game, these numbers should make a lot of sense for Iowa. Michigan State averaged just 3.78 yards per carry all night long, and I don't think anybody would have considered their rushing attack successful for the first 51 minutes of game time. However, that last drive highlighted some of Iowa's issues in stopping the run: a) They are good at holding opponents to about 3 yards per carry, but not at stopping them for no gain or a loss; and b) They struggle to stop their opponents in short-yardage situations. That last Michigan State drive exposed both of those weaknesses for the Hawkeyes. L.J. Scott chipped away at a tired Iowa defense, and eventually willed himself into the end zone. If Iowa's defense ends up in a similar position against Stanford, it shouldn't be all that surprising to see Iowa's defense break after bending all game long.

Because of the Stanford line's ability to help keep the offense on schedule and their success rate in short-yardage situations, I have to give them the advantage here.

Advantage: Stanford


To recap, this side of the ball should be dogfight. Stanford loves hard-nosed, power football, and Iowa equally welcomes that on the defensive end of the ball. Overall, I think Iowa's defense matches up fairly well with Stanford's offense. The Cardinal like to run the ball a majority of the time, and Iowa's defense is built to shut the run down. Where Stanford has the advantage, in my opinion, is with their insane efficiency and in the passing game when Christian McCaffrey gets out in space against one of Iowa's linebackers. The Hawkeyes may limit Stanford's big plays, but McCaffrey and Co. have shown the ability to move the chains and put together plenty of sustained drives that end in points this season. Iowa's defense is predicated on the fact that most college football teams can't execute perfectly on long 15-play drives, but Stanford is one of those rare teams that can execute perfectly on long, methodical drives. And if they chip away at Iowa's defense all game long, my big concern comes with Stanford putting together a dominant 15-play, 8-minute drive that finally breaks Iowa's defense, once and for all.

Next time we will discuss Iowa's offense vs. Stanford's defense. This preview may seem a bit grim, but the other side of the ball is where Iowa could have the advantage.