Hawkeyes Faced With Task of Slowing Christian McCaffrey

By: Ben Leonard

LOS ANGELES, Calif. —

Picture this: Heisman finalist and Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey could have been lining up on the opposite sideline for Friday’s 102nd Rose Bowl Game, donning Hawkeye gold and black.

That’s not an image many Stanford fans would like to think about — but it could have been a reality, although it would have been a big surprise. On Monday, McCaffrey said that he “knew” he wanted to go to Stanford when he visited in his sophomore year, but also visited Oregon, UCLA, and Duke, where his older brother, Max, plays.

Iowa also offered McCaffrey a scholarship, but they offered late in the process, so it was too little, too late. “Nothing against them at all — they just offered late,” McCaffrey said Monday.

Now that the Hawkeyes can’t have McCaffrey, all they can do is try to stop him. Good luck with that.

After playing limited time as a true freshman in 2014, McCaffrey ascended to have arguably had the best statistical season ever — breaking Barry Sanders’ vaunted all-purpose yards record with fewer touches than the Oklahoma State legend. He led his team with 504 receiving yards, was second in the nation with 1,847 rushing yards, and even amassed 1,042 kick return yards, an unmatched combination.

“What is Christian McCaffrey? The answer is a football player,” head coach David Shaw said. “It’s not a running back. It’s not a receiver. It’s not a returner. It’s a football player. You can say he had the best year in the history of college football.”

He’s also a great competitor on and off the field, and a humble one at that. Yes, that’s possible, but only if you’re Christian McCaffrey. Stanford linebacker and captain Blake Martinez spoke about McCaffrey’s humble fire on Tuesday:

“He’s a great competitor. I just remember during the off-season, me and him worked in the same internship this summer and every single day we played chess or certain games, and if either one of us lost, we were just going berserk in the offices. There’s another office right above us and they would be telling us to be quiet because we’re screaming at each other and we want to play another game. Just shows little things like that. We can be playing Tic-Tac-Toe, he’s getting mad if I X-out or make it a Tac game or something. He’s pretty funny.”

“There’s nothing that he can’t do well,” McCaffrey’s quarterback Kevin Hogan said Tuesday. “We kind of have a little beef going on right now, because he whipped my butt in ping pong and pool, and I’m pretty good at those. So I’m kind of upset that he’s been whupping me in everything, every kind of competition there. So I gotta find something, maybe a hobby or something that I can beat him in.But he’s the ultimate teammate. He’s a great guy, gets along with everyone and can do it all. So he’s a really special player, once-in-a-generation player, and in my opinion, I’ve seen a lot of players, and I think he’s the best player in college football.”

If anyone is to stop McCaffrey’s all-around game, the Hawkeyes are up to the task. Their ability to force turnovers (18 interceptions, 9th in the NCAA) and limit the passing game (tenth in the NCAA in pass efficiency defense) could help them make Stanford’s offense one-dimensional. If they can lock down Hogan’s passing attack, the Hawkeyes could more effectively hone in on McCaffrey and bottle him up.

Like many Big Ten teams, the Hawkeyes run a relatively simple 4-3 defense without many variations. But that doesn’t mean their no-frills defense is swiss cheese material — rather, the opposite, because the balanced Hawkeyes ‘ defense ranked in the top-15 against the run and top-ten against the pass. McCaffrey praised the Hawkeyes’ “physical” defense, one that doesn’t “do a whole lot because they’re so good at what they do.”

Even with all respect to Iowa’s elite defense, Hogan is not too convinced that McCaffrey can be shut down because of the player he is: “I don’t know what you can do to limit him, because it’s not like we’re just going to hand the ball off to him all game. We’re going to split him out wide, put him on their linebackers, on their safeties and present mismatches. If teams have to send out different personnel matchings to match ours, and when we go big tight end sets with Christian out there and split him out wide, it’s tough to cover him with linebackers and safeties. So I think we have a great game plan. If they try and limit us in one aspect, I think we’re very comfortable with all aspects of our offense.”

Like many Heisman voters, some Hawkeyes hadn’t heard much about McCaffrey until lately because Stanford had so many late games, with seven games starting later than 10 P.M. EST.

“I hadn’t heard too much about [McCaffrey],” said Iowa senior linebacker Cole Fisher. “I didn’t follow him in the Heisman race too much, and that was probably the first time I heard about him.”

But after watching the film, they realized what Stanford has in McCaffrey. What do they have to do to stop him? According to Iowa defensive back Jordan Lomax, “it’s gonna take all eleven people running to the ball.”

Just a wild guess: Iowa wishes they could have McCaffrey, not try to stop him.

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