By Jeremy Harness
photo credit: espn.go.com Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey interviewed after Pac 12 Championship on ESPN
LOS ANGELES – In a game that pits two football teams that share the same approach to the game, experience usually goes a long way in deciding the winner, as does a favorable matchup or two.
That appears to be the case for Stanford, who will take on Iowa Friday afternoon in the 102nd edition of the Rose Bowl. While the Cardinal will be playing in their third Rose Bowl in four years, the Hawkeyes will be in this game for the first time in 25 years.
In addition, the only familiarity that these two teams have ever had with each other is what they’ve seen on video. Although both programs have been playing football for more than 130 years, Friday afternoon will mark the first time these two schools have ever met on the football field.
Both schools have balanced offenses but put more emphasis on the running attack, and they both are good at stopping the run, and that makes breaking down this particular game interesting.
Let’s get to it:
WHEN STANFORD HAS THE BALL:
There is no question that Heisman Trophy candidate Christian McCaffrey is the one that makes the Stanford offense go because of the wide range of abilities that he possesses, and for that reason, the Cardinal have found different ways to get the football in his hands. It is imperative that the Hawkeyes make sure they know where is at all times, whether he is getting the handoff or receiving the ball out of the backfield.
On defense, Iowa excels in stopping the run. The Hawkeyes have surrendered only 10 rushing touchdowns this season and only 114.9 yards per game on the ground, which is the 10th-lowest total in the nation, so look for Iowa to put a spy on McCaffrey, likely safety Jordan Lomax, to shadow the sophomore back.
The challenge for the Hawkeyes will be their ability to match up with Stanford’s big tight ends, Austin Hooper and Devon Cajuste, both of whom have proven to be matchup nightmares. Iowa’s defensive backs are not particularly big, which will make things very tough for Iowa.
In addition, quarterback Kevin Hogan, although not particularly fast, does just enough with his legs to get away from pressure and extend plays, which forces the secondary to cover for a longer period of time and create more of an edge for the offense.
If there is a clear strategic advantage, this is it for Stanford.
At the same time, it is very important for Hogan to be careful with the football. For instance, it will be extremely wise for Hogan to keep the ball away from Iowa cornerback Desmond King, whose eight interceptions in 2015 is the second-highest total in the nation. The Hawkeyes, meanwhile, have picked off 18 passes as a team, ninth in the country in that category.
WHEN IOWA HAS THE BALL:
Like Stanford, Iowa’s primary focus is to establish the run. The Hawkeyes averaged 192 yards per game during the season, which is good for 40th in the nation. Jordan Canzeri spearheads the Iowa rushing attack, as he amassed 976 yards on the ground in 2015 to go along with 12 touchdowns.
As was shown in the third quarter of the Pac-12 title game against USC, Stanford has had problems with smaller, quick running backs, and Canzeri fits that bill. The Cardinal, meanwhile, rank 38th in the nation in rushing yards allowed per game at 146.9, which the Hawkeyes could use to their advantage come Friday afternoon.
Although they don’t throw as much as Stanford, the Hawkeyes do have a big-play, deep-threat receiver in senior Tevaun Smith. His ability to stretch the field was quite evident in the Big 12 championship, as he torched Michigan State on an 85-yard touchdown from quarterback C.J Beathard to put the Hawkeyes ahead on the first play of the fourth quarter.
Expect the Cardinal to match cornerback Ronnie Harris, who had very good success against USC star wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster in the first half of the Pac-12 championship game before his ongoing ankle injury forced him to sit out the second half.
Meanwhile, Harris has had almost an entire month to recover from that injury, so he should be much closer to 100 percent come New Year’s Day.
However, Iowa has struggled to get any momentum going their way in the first quarter of games this year, so it will be particularly important for the Cardinal, which has been adept at striking first, to do just that.
On the other hand, the Hawkeyes have shown a penchant for turning it on late in the game, particularly in the fourth quarter. Beathard has completed 35 of his 52 throws for 554 yards and four touchdowns in the final quarter alone this year. If Stanford does not get off to the fast start that it may need, allowing Iowa to keep the game close, the game could very well turn in the Hawkeyes’ direction.