Last time we talked about the Stanford offense, and how Iowa matched up with them. This time we move to the other side of the ball, and this is where Iowa should have an advantage. That is, if the coaching staff opens up the playbook and lets the players make plays.
Let's get into it, shall we?
When Iowa has the Ball
|Per Drive Stats||Points Per Drive||Points Per Value Drive||Points Per Long Drive||Yards Per Stop||Touchdown Percentage|
Looking at the five factors for winning a football game, Iowa has advantages in everything but field position on offense. Iowa's offense has been slightly above average in explosiveness this season, and they have been efficient on top of that. Additionally, their touchdown percentage matches up with what the chart says about Iowa's ability to finish drives. What's odd, though, is that Iowa's offense has been simply average in points per value drive this season. For a refresher, points per value drive is a stat that tells us how many points a team scores, on average, on drives that start on their side of the field and reach at least their opponent's 30 yard line. While Iowa's total only hovers around the FBS norm in that category, they actually make up for it with an ability to score points on drives that start inside their own 20 yard line. Weird.
Stanford, meanwhile, has a defense that is set up well by their offense consistently moving the ball and scoring, but they don't really seem to be more than just pretty good in any other area. When it comes to points per trip allowed inside the 40 yard line they are about 4% above average on the season, but they are 12% better when it comes to keeping the opposing team from putting the ball in the end zone at the end of a drive. Those are good stats, but there are some holes in this defense. For instance, they are 4% below the average team in giving up points when the opposing offense is pinned deep this year and 4% below average when it comes to keeping their opponents off schedule. And on top of that, they aren't forcing many turnovers this season. Replacing 9 starters from 2014's murderous defense has clearly come with some growing pains in 2015.
Let's dig deeper.
|Rushing||S&P+ Rank||Standard Down Rush%||Passing Down Rush%||Efficiency||Explosiveness||Overall Rushing|
Lending more credence to the idea that Iowa can be too predictable on offense at times, the numbers show us that the Hawkeyes are significantly more likely than the average team to call a run play no matter the situation. If you remember, Stanford was more even more likely to run the ball on non-passing downs than Iowa this season, but when it was time to throw the ball, their tendencies balanced out. Iowa, though, not so much. On standard downs, the Hawkeyes are 14% more likely than the average FBS team to run the ball, but when it's time to throw it Iowa rarely mixes things up. I know we've been irritated in the past with Kirk calling a conservative draw play on third and long and essentially conceding a drive to the opposing defense, but this play calling means Hawkeye foes can pin their ears back and rush the passer with little worry of Iowa catching them off guard (outside of a screen pass, anyway).
But, that's beside the point. The main point of this all was to show that Iowa is a run-heavy team on standard downs, but moves away from that in passing situations.
Running the ball has been a huge part of the Hawkeyes' resurgence this season. They are a little below average in the explosiveness category, but Jordan Canzeri and Akrum Wadley both have shown the ability to break big runs this season.
On top of that, Canzeri, Wadley, and C.J. Beathard are picking up more than 5 yards, on average, when they run the ball. LeShun Daniels and his power running falls just short of that, running for 4.5 yards per carry this season. But what Iowa lacks in explosiveness (mostly thanks to Daniels), they make up for in efficiency, where they have been 8% better than the average FBS team in moving the chains on the ground this season.
C.J. Beathard's legs should also be mentioned here as a real wildcard. He's still not 100% healthy, as he continues to battle groin and hip injuries that have plagued him since early in the season. Iowa was open to using him in the zone read and calling more designed runs for him when he was healthy, but those packages have disappeared with injury. Hobbled or not, though, Beathard still poses a threat to tuck the ball and run if no one gets open on a pass play, and he's a threat to pick up almost 7 yards a pop when he does so.
As for Stanford, they are a 3-4 base defense that plays a lot of nickel due to the type of offenses they see in the Pac-12. I would imagine they will play more in their base defense against Iowa except for when the Hawkeyes go to the shotgun on third and long situations.
As you can see from the chart (courtesy of cfbstats), teams that were good at running the ball this season averaged at least 4 yards per carry against this defense, and a lot of times they earned more than that.
The star of this defense is the linebacker Blake Martinez, and he's one the offensive line needs to make sure to get a hat on every play. He only has 6 tackles for loss this season, but he has 15% of the defense's total tackles on the year, which means he gets in on just about every play. This unit doesn't have a lot of girth up front, which could explain some of their issues stopping the run and could spell some good news for an Iowa offensive line whose smallest starter is the 288 lb. Sean Welsh.
Despite these problems against the run, opposing teams have chosen to throw the ball more than normal on Stanford this season, regardless of what the down and distance is. We'll get to that later, but you can see that it's not necessarily because Stanford's run defense is extremely stingy. They are a bit above average when it comes to keeping opponents from being efficient and on schedule, but they have a big play problem on the ground. A lot of what I've seen in various highlights seems to be potential issues for Stanford with the zone read and misdirection. Both Oregon and Notre Dame killed them on the ground by using the zone read, motion, and misdirection to break off some big plays.
Of course, Iowa doesn't run a whole lot of misdirection or zone read. They prefer to line up and smack you in the mouth repeatedly with the inside and outside zone runs. Outside of Northwestern (and their style still differs from Iowa), I don't know how many teams Stanford has faced this season with this style of rushing attack. This is a defense built for the spread offenses of the Pac-12, which could be a potential plus in the running game for Iowa. If the big boys up front can execute their blocks and reach the linebackers, the opportunity for Canzeri or Wadley to hit a home run could be there.
|Passing||S&P+ Rank||Standard Down Pass%||Passing Down Pass%||Efficiency||Explosiveness||Overall Passing|
When it comes to passing the ball, as we've already seen, Iowa tends not to pass the ball that much relative to the average FBS team on standard downs. Of course, when they need quite a few yards in order to move the chains, Greg Davis breaks out the shotgun formation. Again, Iowa doesn't seem to care all that much whether or not you know it's coming. If they are in shotgun: a) the situation is 99% likely to be a passing down; and b) the call is almost always going to be a pass play. And where Jordan Canzeri is important to the run game, his health is also important to the pass game. Because if Akrum Wadley is in the game, you know the call is probably a run play and if Derrick Mitchell Jr. is in the game on third down, Iowa's probably throwing the ball.
Despite some predictable tendencies, the Hawkeyes are actually pretty good at passing the ball this season, mostly thanks their ability to hit on big plays. Iowa is only 2% below the FBS average when it comes to moving the chains through the air, but C.J. Beathard's big arm makes it so Greg Davis can have some success running an offense that had been an abject failure in past years. Beathard gets enough zip on short passes that his receivers get that necessary extra second to catch the ball and make a cut downfield before the defender can get another step on them. And he also has the cannon to make deep throws look ridiculously easy.
When it comes to who he throws the ball to, Matt Vandeberg is clearly Beathard's favorite target. Vandeberg isn't a big play guy, but he's reliable and he moves the chains. Henry Krieger-Coble also similarly fits this mold, but has shown more big play ability this season. But if we are looking for true big play ability, Tevaun Smith and George Kittle are Iowa's usual suspects when it comes to huge pass plays in 2015. Tevaun only averages 9.6 yards per target, but when he does catch the ball, his normal reception goes for 18 yards. With only a 52.6% catch rate on the year, Smith is extremely boom or bust in the pass game. As for Kittle, he sees fewer targets than Smith, but he has 6 touchdowns on just 20 catches this season.
In general, though, Iowa's offensive strategy is just like Stanford's: run the ball effectively on a majority of downs, and then strike with the deep ball off of play action.
As far as Stanford goes when it comes to defending the pass, they seem to be the opposite of how they defend the run. They are good at limiting big plays through the air, but opposing teams have been able to move the ball effectively in shorter chunks. Now, I'm not saying the numbers are wrong, but some of the highlights show that Stanford's secondary can be exposed against teams that aren't terrible at throwing the ball. For example, against UCLA:
And against Notre Dame.
The Cardinal secondary even had some issues against USC (as did their run defense) that I didn't vine for the sake of the page loading. If we look at their yards per attempt allowed this season, we can see that teams are throwing for at least 7 yards per attempt against them on a fairly regular basis.
Unlike the run schemes, these pass plays are things that Iowa can do. That is, assuming the coaching staff allows them to take shots down the field. And, admittedly, that can be a big if sometimes. Iowa's passing game has a tendency to become ineffective for large parts of play sometimes, and I've come to believe that most of the time it's either due to play calling or a lack of pass protection for Beathard. I will talk about the latter more in the next section, but Stanford doesn't offer much in the way of a pass rush. After Shilique Calhoun single-handedly disrupted Iowa's offense in the Big Ten Championship, this is welcome news for Iowa's precarious left tackle situation. Thus, the only way I can envision Iowa's passing game not having a pretty good day on January 1st is if the play calling is atrocious.
In the Trenches
|Trenches||Pass Blocking/Pressure||Run Blocking/Disruption||Opportunity Rate||Power Success Rate||Stuff Rate|
When we get to the big fellas up front, Iowa's offensive line has been better at run blocking than pass blocking this season. However, despite averaging 2 sacks per game, Bill Connelly's adjusted sack rate -- a stat that attempts to adjust a team's sacks based on their opponents -- does not like Stanford's pass rush. Like, at all. The Cardinal's use of athletic hybrid players up front makes it so they can send four men at the quarterback from various places on the field at any given time, while dropping others into coverage. The size mismatch may be an advantage for Iowa in the run game, but the Hawkeyes haven't faced a 3-4 defense like this since Wisconsin this season, so it may be interesting to see how well Iowa's offensive line and running backs can identify where the pressure is coming from.
That being said, if you look at Stanford's havoc rate (how often the defense gets a tackle for loss, forces a fumble, or breaks up a pass) for their defensive line, they are ranked only 78th in the country. So the defensive linemen probably aren't going to be a huge issue for the Hawkeyes. Of course, a lot of that is due to Stanford's 3-4 defense and because they have played a lot of 2-4-5 nickel this season, so it should not come as a surprise that their linebacking core (Blake Martinez) is 32nd in the nation in wreaking havoc.
Moving to run blocking, Iowa is above average in adjusted line yards per carry (yards per carry attributed to the line only), but below average by the same margin in opportunity rate (how often the line gives the running back 5 yards of rushing room). My best guess as to the difference in ratings is because adjusted line yards gives 100% credit to the offensive line for carries that go 4 yards or less. Iowa, on the whole this season, has run for 4.71 yards per carry and doesn't quite average that 5 yard mark that opportunity rate sets as a benchmark. Thus, Iowa's offensive line can regularly get 4 yards of push in the run game, but not consistently more. That explanation seems to fit with their efficient, but not quite explosive tendencies in the run game this season, and it makes sense when you see that Iowa's line is 9% above average in short yardage and goal line situations (thanks, quarterback sneak) and 13% above average at not getting their running back tackled in the backfield.
Stanford's play up front is a little weird. They are below average in adjusted line yards, opportunity rate, and stuff rate, but they seem to thrive in power situations this season. I would imagine that's because they bring in extra linemen or they call a lot of run blitzes or something, but i haven't looked at film and verified. If that is the case, then Stanford may be more successful than we think they will be if they are in their base 3-4 more often and if Iowa's predictability allows them to dissect the play call and plug the run lanes with linebackers and safeties.
Overall, when it comes to trench play, I also lean toward Iowa. In the run game, I think the size advantage up front for the Hawks should allow them to wash out linebackers and create some running room for Canzeri and Co. When it comes to pass protection, I would be lying if I said I wasn't a little concerned about Iowa identifying rushers in a 3-4 defense. However, with ample time to watch film and prepare, and due to Stanford's lack of a Shilique Calhoun-type to throw Iowa's left tackle around like a rag doll, I think Iowa's pass protection holds up and gives Beathard time to make plays with his arm.
While Stanford's offense looks to have a potential advantage on the other side of the football, Iowa's offense looks to have an advantage on this one. Stanford's defense has taken a clear step back from the dominating units we have seen over the past couple of years, and that provides Iowa with the opportunity to make plays through the air and on the ground in this one.
The only potential concerns I have are Iowa picking up blitzes from a 3-4 defense and the offensive play calling. The former I think can be overcome with weeks of preparation and watching tape. The latter, I'm hoping can be overcome by this being the last game of the year, and they can't hold anything back. Hopefully Iowa will take some shots down the field. Maybe they will reintroduce the Jonathan Parker fly sweep, but with a little wrinkle similar to the Notre Dame clip above, where Jordan Canzeri gets the ball and Parker is a decoy. Who knows?
What we do likely know, or what we can hypothesize from what we've seen from these two teams, is that this should be an absolute brawl. Neither team appears to have any huge advantages over the other, so this looks to be a close game. Stanford opened in Vegas as a 6-point favorite, S&P+ also has Stanford as a 6-point favorite (64% win probability), FEI has them as a 12-point favorite (77% win probability), and THOR+ only has them as a 1-point favorite (51% win probability). Most indicators point to a one-possession game, with Iowa being the underdog. But Iowa prefers to be the underdog; they loved to be overlooked. Hopefully they can take that chip on their shoulder, and turn it into the motivation that gets this program a Rose Bowl victory.
My Prediction (all the cool kids are doing it, you know): Iowa 31, Stanford 27
This is "The Granddaddy of Them All", folks, and Iowa hasn't been here in 24 years. They also haven't won the damn thing since 1959, so needless to say, this is a huge game. A win tomorrow would be the delicious cherry topping on our amazing ice cream sundae of a season. Make it happen.