Missouri enters the game as near to full strength as the Tigers have been since October. Back-up DE Brad Madison will play in the Insight Bowl with a cast on a finger he fractured last week. The Tigers have played the second half of the season without DT Dominique Hamilton, and LB Luke Lambert, both of whom will miss the bowl game. Back-up safety Jasper Simmons missed the Tigers' final two games, following his dismissal from the team. And of course, Missouri played the entire season without former starting TB Derrick Washington, who was dismissed from the team just days before the season opener.
Under Head Coach Gary Pinkel, Missouri is seeking its 11th win of the season, which would be just the second 11-win season in school history (12 wins in 2007). This year's senior class has amassed 40 wins over the last four seasons, a school record, and the 10th most nationally, during that time span.
"Missouri is a team that has really had a great season," said Iowa Head Coach Kirk Ferentz. "They're nationally ranked, and they've proven that they're a very good football team....................... They're very, very well-coached with a great scheme and a lot of help at all positions. They're good in all three phases (special teams, offense, defense)."
The centerpiece of Missouri's spread offense is 6'5" 235 pound QB Blaine Gabbert, whom many NFL draft experts believe will be a first-round pick in this year's draft. On the season, Gabbert completed 260 of his 418 pass attempts (62.2%), for 2752 yards (10.6 yards/completion), and 15 TDs, against just 7 interceptions.
"Blaine's a very talented player," began Coach Pinkel, assessing his junior QB. "He's got as good an arm as I've ever coached. He's a very smart player. He's very, very competitive, and I think he's very, very tough. I think those two characteristics are a necessity if you want to be a high, high level quarterback. You can talk about great arm all you want, you can talk about reads and all those other things, but if you aren't mentally tough and you aren't physically tough, and a great competitor, you'll never have a chance to be as good as you can be. And I think he has all those qualities. He's had a very good year for us."
Since this may be Gabbert's Missouri finale, it's significant to note that Blaine Gabbert already owns two of the top 5 seasons at Missouri, in terms of passing yardage. The other three belong to Chase Daniel. And, Gabbert's career passer efficiency rating at Missouri of 132.5 is second in school history only to Daniel's 148.9.
"He's big and he throws the ball extremely well," Ferentz said, speaking of Gabbert. "The other hidden dynamic that doesn't show up statistically is that he's an effective and dangerous runner. It's not like he's a big, plodding guy at all. He's a guy that can run and is very athletic."
"Gabbert is big and he can throw," said Iowa defensive coordinator Norm Parker. "He can really throw. I think his speed is deceptive and he's a real good athlete. So he can scramble around and beat you."
Parker knows that slowing down Missouri will be a challenge.
"They're probably like Northwestern at its most extreme, bizarre things," said Parker, who is in his 12th season on Iowa's coaching staff. "They might line up their tackles and quarterbacks here, put five guys over here, nobody here."
Northwestern enjoyed a 74% completion rate, and passed for 318 yards, and 2 fourth quarter TDs, in a 21-17 come from behind win over Iowa in November. Northwestern's offense is as similar to Missouri's as any in the country.
"They might line up four guys here, the core of their offense, nobody over here," continued Parker, talking about Missouri's offense. "I mean, it is stuff that you draw up in the sand at the beach."
"They know what they're doing with it," explained Parker. "There's a method to their madness. I think figuring out the method to the madness is the trick. You try to match up guy on guys. They might line up a tight end here, the running back lines up over there."
Gabbert is the centerpiece of Missouri's offense, but he's not alone. In fact, during the latter part of the season, Missouri reshaped it's offensive identity to become much more run oriented, a response to the Double Eagle defenses that everyone threw at the Tigers the second half of the season.
Missouri utilized a very effective running back by committee approach this season. Their four TBs, De'Vion Moore (485 rushing yards, 8 TDs, 5.2 yards/carry), Henry Josey (425 rushing yards, 4 TDs, 5.7 yards/carry), Kendial Lawrence (382 rushing yards, 4 TDs, 5.7 yards/carry), and Marcus Murphy (181 rushing yards, 2 TDs, 8.2 yards/carry), collectively averaged 5.75 yards/carry.
In the pass catching category, Missouri has relied primarily on its four starters. Consensus All-American TE, junior Michael Egnew (6.92 receptions/game, 8.4 yards/reception, 4 TDs) leads the team in receptions, and sophomore slot receiver T.J. Moe (6.42 receptions/game, 11.6 yards/reception, 6 TDs) leads the Tigers in receiving yards and TDs. Missouri's outside receivers, juniors Jerrell Jackson (3.73 receptions/game, 12.9 yards/reception, 3 TDs), and Wes Kemp (2.67 receptions/game, 11.2 yards/reception, 3 TDs) do a good job of blocking on the outside, but have been inconsistent cstching the football. When those two have played well, Missouri's offense has been prolific.
Missouri's special teams are as good as they've been under Coach Pinkel. Senior punter Matt Grabner has been consistently effective. And, Missouri's improved in coverage, as well. Junior placekicker Grant Ressell missed 4 kicks this season, 3 more than he did in all of his 2009 All-American season, but he also made a career long 50 yard FG, and he's improved his kick-offs.
Defensively, Missouri has allowed an average of 15.17 points a game, which is tops in the Big 12, and 6th nationally. The Tigers have garnered 3.08 sacks/game, which also ranks 6th nationally. And, sacks are a factor in Missouri's number 10 national ranking in defensive pass efficiency.
"That's not a fluke that they've given up 15 a game," Ferentz said. "If you get it down in there, they do a great job in the red zone. I think they've got to be the top of the country as far as red zone production."
In fact, the Tigers lead all of NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision teams in red zone defense, allowing 17 scores on 31 drives (54.8 percent).
Iowa offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe has been working on a game plan to combat Missouri's defense.
"They're built on speed defensively," said O'Keefe. "I would describe them as a very athletic team, especially their front seven. If you look at them from a statistical standpoint, the things that you notice about them most are they're giving up a little more than two touchdowns a game, but they are really stingy in the red zone, not only in allowing people to score, but letting people score touchdowns."
The challenge for the Tigers will be to stymie Iowa's power running game, without committing too many people to the line of scrimmage, which would leave them vulnerable to the play action passes. The middle of Missouri's defense will be key. Junior MLB Will Ebner should have a big day. The Tigers neeed strong play from the interior of their defensive line. Missouri's safeties, senior Jarrell Harrison and junior Kenji Jackson, will play key roles. We'll probably see Harrison up close to the line of scrimmage a lot.
"You need to know where the blitz is coming from, that's critical," O'Keefe said. "If you know where the blitz is coming from, we've got a chance to get it stopped. We've got to be fundamentally sound. In their conference (Big 12), they've run with some of the best athletes in college football. They're not afraid of that by any means."
Coach Pinkel and others have frequently referred to the Missouri defense as "playing good team defense". That's not to say that Missouri doesn't have really good players. Nine Missouri defenders earned conference honors, including a pair of first-teamers, and a pair of second-teamers. Missouri's regular defensive rotation includes 20 players. The Tigers' speed and athleticism on defense make it dificult for teams to run outside on Missouri, and defending the pass is what they've done the best. Iowa's forte is more of an inside running game, and that will be the challenge for the Tigers.
"To win 11 games would be huge," said Coach Pinkel. "But the bottom line, we've got to do it. We can talk about it all we want, and we've got to play well. There's no question, we're playing a football team that I think is without question, one of the top 20 teams in the nation. You're going to have two teams battling. This is one of those games that you've got to keep battling, and keep fighting, and keep competing, and hopefully, we can do those things, and play our best football game."