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An alliterative look a the keys to the game for Iowa vs. Stanford in the Rose Bowl.

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Getting over the B1G title game has been hard for me. Iowa was so, so, so close. One play away. Inches away. The Rose Bowl has just started to kick in for me. I already knew I was going, but opening up the tickets in a Christmas present got the juices flowing. And doing some research for this post has helped me really get into gear. Iowa’s going to the Rose Bowl and has a shot at winning 13 games in a season and finishing the year in the Top 5. It’s an opportunity years in the making. So what do the Hawkeyes need to do to get it done?

Stop the Jumbo Set

Stanford likes to roll out an ultra jumbo set on short yardage downs, especially 4th-and-short. They bring in extra linemen and pack them in really tight, then run it right up the middle. And it is super effective. Stanford has converted on 12 of 14 fourth down tries…a conversion rate of 85.7%, good for 3rd in the nation.

Iowa doesn’t particularly like to stack the box on 4th down (or ever, really) and have been susceptible to a strong push up the middle in short yardage situations. Opponents are converting 56% of 4th downs against the Hawks, which puts Iowa’s defense in the bottom third in the country. For the most part Iowa has been able to absorb giving up 4th down conversions, but against Michigan State they were inches away from stopping Connor Cook on a 4th-and-2 with 2 minutes left in the game from Iowa’s 5 yard line. And inches were the difference in that game.

Iowa’s defense can’t afford to let Stanford and Christian McCaffrey stay on the field. Michigan State was able to put together a long, methodical drives on the Hawkeye D, and that’s exactly the kind of drive Stanford is built to have. They lead the country in time of possession. In the Football Study Hall advanced stats they are #2 in offensive efficiency and #4 in finishing drives. This team is built for churning out long scoring drives. Double digit play drives are commonplace for the Cardinal. Plus, for Iowa, giving McCaffrey more opportunities to make plays is playing with fire. He is a threat to break a big play every time he touches the ball.

But Don’t Give Up the Big Pass

Kevin Hogan is capable of throwing the ball over the field and, if forced, will air it out. But most of the time Hogan’s arm is just a counter to Stanford’s strong rushing attack and he’ll go for the home run. Against UCLA, Hogan only completed 8 passes, but 3 of them were TDs and he threw for 131 yards. On the year he is averaging 13.6 yards per completion (about a yard more than C.J. Beathard).

McCaffrey is the one to watch out for in the passing game as well. They find a lot of different ways to get the ball in his hands and he is a real weapon coming out of the backfield. McCaffrey leads the team in receptions with 41 and leads the team in receiving yards with 540.

Stanford’s major receiving threat for the second half of the season has been Michael Rector. He has 32 receptions for 486 yards. 18 of those catches have come in the last 5 games, including an 8-catch performance against Oregon. Rector is often the deep threat on play action. He has 6 catches of over 30 yards, including a 53-yarder off of a flea-flicker.

The other main target is tight end Austin Hooper. Even though he's a tight end, he has similar numbers to Rector, with 31 catches for 415 yards. He is a go-to guy in the red zone and leads the team in TD receptions with 6. Hooper was a Mackey Award finalist and 2nd/3rd team All-American.

With two of the biggest threats in the passing game coming from the running back and tight end, the linebackers are going to have some tough assignments. They will need to be very disciplined against run fakes and watch for McCaffrey and Hooper breaking out into routes late after initially blocking.

Attack the Linebackers

Stanford primarily uses a 3-4 defense and is generally sound against the run. They only allow 147 rushing yards per games (40th in the country), but are susceptible to strong rushing attacks. Up the middle isn’t the best option as Blake Martinez is a tackling machine. He has 132 tackles (70 solo) on the year. But misdirection and quickness on the outside have allowed teams to pick up big chunks of yards on the Cardinal D (attacking the spots where Martinez is not). Notre Dame used its QB effectively in the run game and and had 299 rushing yards. Oregon used sweeps and other misdirection to get 231 rushing yards. In all, over Stanford’s last 4 games, they have given up 793 yards on 126 carries (6.3 yards per carry).

Against the pass Stanford usually sends at least one linebacker as a pass rusher. Peter Kalambayi is usually the guy to come in off the outside. He has 3.5 sacks and 5 QB hurries. The other two OLBs, Kevin Anderson and Joey Alfieri, will also rush the QB and have combined for another 6 sacks. Neither, however, has done a whole lot otherwise, each with 30.5 tackles and no pass breakups. So that’s where Iowa can attack with its tight ends in the passing game. While it is unfortunate Jake Duzey won’t be able to play after already missing so much of the season, George Kittle and Henry Krieger-Coble, who have both really come on the second half of the year, should be a big part of Greg Davis’ game plan.

Hit Something Big

Iowa came out in the fourth quarter of the B1G title game and didn’t hold anything back. They hit on a long play action pass to Tevaun Smith for a TD. And then they nearly missed on another couple of long passes and threw in a toss RB-pass that was well read. Ultimately, Iowa came just up short where one more big play (especially on defense) would have made the difference.

I think the initial worry is that Stanford will hit something big. McCaffrey is a big play waiting to happen. He surprisingly only has one kick return for a TD and no punt return TDs and only 13 scores overall. It feels like he should have so many more touchdowns, given that his all-purpose yards are off the charts at 3,496.

Iowa has its own big playmakers this year, too. Desmond King hasn’t had an interception in too long, after narrowly missing on quite a few chances in recent games. And while Hogan doesn’t throw a lot of picks, if he throws a ball a little bit off, King is going to be ready. King also hasn’t had a kick return for a TD, but isn’t so far behind McCaffrey in his average return number. Maybe this is the game he breaks one.

My hope is that it’s Jordan Canzeri who breaks off a few long runs. He has had so much more than his fair share of injuries and keeps battling back better than before. Every indication is that he’ll be fully ready to go. I expect Iowa will continue use the RBs in their different roles, but with Canzeri the only senior of the group and the most complete back at this point, I think he’ll get the majority of the carries.

Where else could a big play come from? Play action for both teams is going to be a big factor. C.J. Beathard might have some chances to make plays with his feet. Marshall Koehn could be asked to hit a big field goal.


I don’t think this will be a defensive battle like the B1G title game. Stanford is built to take what the defense gives them and Iowa’s bend-but-don’t-break defense likes to give you a little bit all the way down the field. But I think the Hawkeyes will have a lot more success on offense. The rushing attack will look much better than it did against the Spartans. And I think it is ultimately Iowa’s offensive line who wears down the Cardinal 3-man front and is able to grind out a long game-winning drive in the 4th quarter.

Final Score: Iowa 34 - Stanford 30

BONUS! Use the widget below from the good folks at The Crowd's Line to enter your own prediction for Iowa in the Rose Bowl: