Stanford's Defense Faces a Stylistically similar Foe in the Hawkeye Offense

Stanford's Defense faces a stylistically similar opponent in the Iowa Hawkeyes. Here's what the Cardinal faces on D Jan. 1, and what they'll need to do to succeed.

                Stanford’s defense isn’t facing anything revolutionary on January 1.  What the play at the top shows is that the Cardinal is going to face a team that finds its success in much the same way Stanford does.  This is a black and gold version of some of the principles that have helped Stanford be so successful, and it brings into relief exactly what Stanford’s defense needs to do to help win the 102nd Rose Bowl.

                Iowa starts out with a deceptively balanced formation.  Twins Left is usually a strong indicator of where the offensive intention is, but in this case, the Hawkeyes also have a double tight end alignment on the right and a single back in the backfield behind C.J. Beathard.  The Spartans have to honor the strong side, and they do, placing #36 on the tight end side, even though there are no receivers on that side of the field.

                At the snap, Beathard turns left to hand the ball off, then executes a strong play fake.   The action draws seven Spartan defenders, meaning there are only four players left to defend the pass.  Wide Receiver Tevaun Smith, a name we’ll talk more about shortly, streaks down the field out of the Twins and runs a post from his position on the outside.  With no safety help, Beathard chucks it up, Smith hauls it in, and it’s checkmate.

                Defending the pass, and more specifically, the big pass, is job number one for Stanford, and job number two isn’t even close in importance, based on what the numbers say.  Beathard has the Big Ten’s second-best yards per attempt average and the Hawkeyes have the fourth-best rush attack in the Big Ten.  Iowa’s gonna make their money on passing downs, if the numbers stay true to form.

                Iowa’s passing down (2nd and 8+, 3rd or 4th and 5+) S&P+ rating is 122.4, good for 19th best in the nation.  Stanford’s defense on passing downs is 109.2, 40th best in the country.   Iowa has a Passing Down Success Rate of 37.2, which is 18th best in the country.  The Cardinal defense is rated only 83rd in this department.  Iowa’s 4.10 Passing Down Line Yards Per Carry is 6th best in the country, while the Cardinal’s 3.55 is 99th in the country.

                To say that Iowa is going to be at its most threatening on passes isn’t to say that the Hawkeyes don’t want to run the ball.  Again, like Stanford, this is a team that huddles, and plays at a very measured pace of 69.2 plays per game (99th).  Iowa’s run/pass ratio was 60/40 on the season.  The Hawkeyes are gonna try to run, but the numbers strongly suggest that Stanford’s run D should be up to the challenge.

                Running Back Jordan Canzeri handles most of the load for Iowa, and his 6.5 highlight yards per opportunity is a number that Stanford would be wise to honor.  Essentially these are yards gained on his own, after the point in the play in which the offensive line has done its job.  For comparison, Christian McCaffrey’s Highlight YPC this year was 4.6.  Le Shaun Daniels, Jr. backs up Canzeri and he’s got a 5.2 Highlight yards per carry.

                That being said, Stanford’s run defense matches up far better with Iowa than its pass defense.  Iowa is going to run just enough to get the commitment from Stanford that it got from Michigan State in the video above.  Like Stanford, if they can run all day, they will, but really they are setting up for the play action game, again as the Cardinal offense is wont to do.

                Tevaun Smith is pretty clearly the deep ball threat for Iowa.  He’s the second-most targeted receiver for Iowa at 17.4%, but his catch rate is by far the lowest of Beathard’s most popular targets at 52.6%.  However, as the video showed, when he hits, he hits big.  His 9.6 yards per target is the best on the team among Beathard’s favorites, and his 18.2 yards per catch dwarfs that of his teammates.   At 6’2”, it’ll be interesting to see who draws Smith in coverage for Stanford.

                Matt VandeBerg is Beathard’s most targeted (27.2%) receiver, and he’s far more dependable than Smith, with a 69% catch rate that brings in far fewer yards per target (7.2) and catch (10.4).  I feel like this matchup goes to one of the youngsters for Stanford, as my best guess is that Harris will draw Smith on most passing downs.  

Henry Krieger Coble, who looks exactly as you imagine he does, is a 6’4” Tight End who rounds out Beathard’s trio of preferred receivers.   He is the most dependable target, catching 73.3% of passes, and he’s got a healthy 9.3 yards per target (comparable to Smith’s) and 12.7 yards per catch.  HKC represents a significant challenge to a Stanford linebacking core who has struggled mightily in pass defense over the final month of the season.  I’d have to believe Stanford would prefer a safety on Coble, but with the need to stop the run and the threat of Smith deep, I’m not sure that’s an option.

So we have a good sense of how and with whom Iowa is going to attack Stanford, so let’s talk a little about the when:

Quarter

Iowa Offense S&P+ Rank

Stanford Defense S&P+ Rank

1

65

83

2

20

37

3

90

48

4

32

51

 

The Cardinal catches a break it would seem, as Iowa’s offense appears to be relatively slow starting, and the Hawkeyes’ best quarter is also Stanford’s best defensive quarter.  It’s interesting to note the massive struggle Iowa endures coming out of the locker room, though that may be a function of the Hawkeyes leading so often and playing conservatively (sound familiar?).  Nevertheless, it appears as if Stanford’s defense is in sync chronologically if these two teams hold to form on January 1.

Bottom line is that this is clearly the undercard of the day, but as we saw against USC (both games), Stanford’s defense has a part to play and it’s a capable if not spectacular group they face in Iowa.   I just don’t see Iowa scoring without hitting some big plays down the field, which puts the onus on Ronnie Harris and the young Cardinal secondary as well as Stanford’s pass rush.   This is not as potent an offense as USC, Notre Dame, or Oregon, but it poses some very legitimate threats.

Set the number at 27.  Allow that or less, and Stanford wins this game.


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