Here is a look at the Iowa Hawkeyes through the eyes of HawkeyeNation.com Publisher Jon Miller:
When Iowa Runs: It's little secret that Iowa's entire offense flows through the running game. That has been the case in nine of the ten Kirk Ferentz years in Iowa City. The lone exception was 2004, when Iowa was down to its fifth string running back by midseason, and the Hawkeyes had to go through the air to win a Big Ten championship.
This year, that means handing the ball off to Shonn Greene. Greene was named the Doak Walker Award winner on Thursday night, which goes to the nation's best running back. One year ago, he was moving furniture, having been removed from the team due to academic reasons. This year, Greene returned with a vengeance for his junior season and was the only running back in the nation to gain more than 100 yards in all 12 regular season games. His 12 game total was just shy of 1,800 yards, and he averages more than 6.1 yards per carry.
Greene has a rare combination of size, power and quick feet, excelling in Iowa's on-cut zone blocking scheme. He also showed an ability to outrun defensive backs, with two touchdown runs of longer than 50 yards this year, coming against Wisconsin and Purdue. Greene had two, 200-plus yard rushing games this year.
Typically, it takes more than one man to bring down Greene, and every Iowa opponent this year stacked the line of scrimmage with at least seven in the box, and more often than not that total was eight in the box. Teams that can't stop Greene have very little chance against Iowa, due to their excellent defense. Teams that commit seven or eight to the box to stop Greene are susceptible to play action passing, which is what Iowa's passing game is predicated off of.
Just when you think you have the zone scheme figured out and are over pursuing to the ball, the Hawkeyes will run the counter play, usually for big gains. This isn't a well to they go to often; but when they do, it's effective.
The 2008 Iowa offensive line is arguably the second best unit of the Ferentz era, which is saying a mouthful. The line has been very healthy this year, and all five starters are 100 percent for the bowl game. This has been a group that has been a pleasure to watch get off the ball and push opposing lines downfield, getting the second level on linebackers. Center Rob Bruggeman has made reaching the nose guard routine this year, and when that happens, the cutback lane is wide open for Greene.
When Iowa passes: As just mentioned, Iowa is a play action passing team. Several of their plays will look alike at the point of attack, confusing linemen and linebackers into thinking another zone running play, or a trap play is coming, when Iowa's passing schemes are set up off of the exact same motions at the line of scrimmage.
Iowa made a quarterback change in game four, going with redshirt sophomore Rick Stanzi. Stanzi is 6-5 and throws an accurate ball, and he surprised many Iowa fans this year with his ability to feel pressure and elude would be tacklers with his feet. He is not a dual threat quarterback, but he also tends to force the action more with his feet than his arm, what he is taught to do. Stanzi doesn't possess a huge arm, but in Iowa's play action game this year, due to excellent execution at the line of scrimmage and from Shonn Greene's legs, the targets he throws to are usually open.
DJK came on big with a near 200-yard receiving performance against Minnesota, while Myers had a 1st Team All Big Ten season after starting tight end Tony Moeaki was once again plagued with a multitude of injuries. The good news for Iowa is that Moeaki should be totally healthy going into this bowl game, and Iowa loves to employ two-tight sets, and sometimes three-tight sets. Both Myers and Moeaki have exceptional ball skills and are accomplished blockers. Brodell separated his hamstring from his femur last season and has played all 12 games in 2008. He ended his 2006 campaign with back to back 159 yard games against Minnesota and Texas before suffering his injury in the fourth game of 2007. Before his injury, he had remarkable speed. Since coming back, he relies more on being a crafty senior, and many of his deep seam catches this year have been wide open plays, party due to the play action game and partly due to Brodell still having some giddyup in his legs.
When teams run the ball against Iowa: Actually, that hasn't been a good idea. Iowa has surrendered just one 100-yard rusher this season, and that came in the season opener against Maine. Those yards were primarily gained against the reserves. The longest run from scrimmage that Iowa allowed in 2008 was 29 yards, and in most of the games, the longest run for the opposition was not much more than 10 yards. Iowa doesn't do anything fancy on defense; they play base 4-3, with either a two-deep zone or quarters coverage on the back end. Iowa does what it does with a four man line, led by All American Mitch King, one of the quicker interior linemen in the nation. Iowa's ends are not lightning fast, but they are next to impossible to run on.
Here is a list of some of the nation's leading rushers that have played against Iowa this year, and their rushing totals for that game:
It should then come as no surprise that Iowa had the 10th best rushing defense in the nation, allowing just over 98 yards per game on the ground.
What Iowa's linebackers may lack in ‘flash', they make up for in sound technique and disciplined tackling. They play assignment football well as a trio, led by junior A.J. Edds.
When teams throw the ball against Iowa: Iowa finished 8th in passing efficiency defense nationally this year, and they allowed fewer than 192 passing yards per game. Those numbers combined with their rushing yards allowed numbers add up to a defense that finished the season ranked 12th in the nation in total defense, or one notch beneath the Gamecocks.
Iowa is led by its most talented duo of cornerbacks in the Kirk Ferentz era, sophomore Amari Spievey and senior Bradley Fletcher. Again, the Hawks don't do anything fancy on defense, and these two are rarely in cover zero sets. They are sure tacklers on the edge. Iowa's safeties are solid, not exceptional, keeping the action in front of them; Iowa allowed just two passing plays of 50 or more yards all season long.
Iowa does not get a lot of sacks, but they do get consistent pressure on the quarterback. Iowa racked up a lot of hurries and knockdowns this year, which resulted in Iowa recording the 4th highest interception total in all of college football.
To summarize Iowa's defensive philosophy, the fans refer to it as the ‘bend, don't break' system. Iowa's players have even embraced that terminology at times.
Iowa forces opponents to put together eight-plus play scoring drives if they are going to move the ball into field goal range or push it across the goal line.
Against Penn State in early November, the Nittany Lions flat dominated in the first half of that game, running 47 plays, racking up 18 first downs, and putting three scoring drives together that were made up of 19, 11 and 16 plays. Yet, they scored a total of 13 points in the first half after all of that production, due to Iowa's will on defense. Iowa flipped the script on Penn State in the second half, limiting them to under 100 yards of offense (Penn State finished the year as the 15th most prolific offense in the nation) and held the Nittany Lions to under 300 yards for the game.
Quarterback play against Iowa is so important; if you have a patient signal caller that is willing to hit the short out routes and underneath stuff, you can move the ball. But patience is the key word, and the truth of the matter is that in today's college football environment, most teams don't have quarterbacks that possess that level of patience, combined with the requisite skills to attack the areas Iowa gives them.
Special Teams: Iowa's punter is one of the best in the nation at hang time, as the Hawkeyes saw just 11 punts returned against them all season long, an average of fewer than one per game. Iowa's punt team gunners are great at their job, but punter Ryan Donahue is very proficient at pinning teams inside their 20 yard line do to placement. His hang time has resulted in a great deal of fair catches, as you can tell by the 11 punts that have been returned against the Hawks.
Iowa made a change at place kicker at the end of the Penn State game, a gutsy move by Ferentz. Daniel Murray rewarded him with a game winning kick with just seconds to play; Murray's most recent kick to that point came two months prior against Pittsburgh, a 35-yarder that was blocked. True freshman Trent Mossbrucker handled the PAT duties in Iowa's last game. To say this area of Iowa's team is a strength might be a reach, but Murray's meddle has been tested.
Iowa's kickoff return team had been very solid this year prior to the final game of the season, where they had several breakdowns. Their best ‘stopper' was out that game due to a concussion.
Bits and Pieces
Iowa's four losses this year came by a combined 12 points; one point at Pitt (with a 35 yard field goal blocked and an unsettled quarterback rotation at that time), five points at home against Northwestern when Iowa committed five turnovers and still had four cracks at the endzone in the final minute in a 1st and goal from the eight situation (Greene was unavailable, having been knocked out of the game on a vicious head to head play). They lost by three at Michigan State with two turnovers in the redzone, one of them coming at the Spartan four yard line) and they lost on a last second 45-yard field goal at Illinois in a game they gave up a fumble for a touchdown in addition to another interception at midfield.
This Iowa team was a few plays away from being a possible Big Ten title contender, and they were the only team to beat Big Ten champion Penn State. Their defense is certainly Big Ten champion caliber, while their offense has been very good when it hasn't been its own worst enemy.
This may sound biased, but Iowa was probably the team that beat Iowa in three of its four losses.
They were 3-3 at one point this season, with three straight close losses. They finished the season 5-1, with three straight wins over then #3 Penn State, Purdue and a season ending 55-0 performance at Minnesota, a team that began its season 7-1.
I have covered all ten of Ferentz's Iowa teams, including three of them that finished the year ranked #8 in the nation in 2002, 2003 and 2004. In my opinion, the 2008 Iowa team is no worse than the third best team in the Ferentz era, possibly the second best.
However, turnovers are a part of football, and Iowa is what it is; an 8-4 football team that believes its much better than that, and is looking for a strong finish to this season to provide a springboard into 2009, a year where Iowa may return 15 starters and all of its specialists.
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