#6 Stanford v. #5 Iowa
Rose Bowl — Pasadena, CA
January 1, 2016 — 5:00 pm Eastern (ESPN)
Why You Should Watch
It is the oldest remaining tradition in a shifting landscape of college football, as the venerable old stadium nestled in the Arroyo Seco in the shadow of the San Gabriel mountains gets ready to host the 102nd edition of the Granddaddy of ’em All. After serving as one of the semifinals in the inaugural playoff last season, the Rose Bowl returns to its traditional Big Ten versus Pac-12 format to ring in 2016. One team is making its third trip to Pasadena in the past four seasons, having rebounded to win its conference after slipping early and then losing to their biggest recent division rival. Their opponent lost their conference championship game, a spot in the playoff, and an undefeated record, but they will be consoled by their first Rose Bowl trip in 25 years.
Despite a long history of Big Ten and Pac-12 teams competing in interconference battles, Stanford and Iowa have never faced one another. For the Cardinal, this is their 15th appearance in the venerable postseason contest, good for third all-time; they were the winning team in the inaugural edition, defeating Michigan 49-0 on New Year’s Day 1902. Iowa is making its sixth trip to the game, and its first since earning a share of a four-way tie atop the Big Ten in 1990 and playing in the New Year’s 1991 edition. Sophomore sensation and Heisman runner-up Christian McCaffrey will be on the largest stage of his burgeoning career, while the Hawkeyes will be looking to rebound from their loss to Michigan State in Indianapolis and prove that their 12-0 start was no fluke.
What Each Team Brings to the Table
It felt strange at the time, but Stanford’s 16-6 loss at Northwestern to open the season was the result of meeting a good defensive team that would itself win 10 games in the regular season. The Cardinal quickly rebounded, scoring at least 30 points in its next 12 games and finish in the top 20 nationally in scoring offense. Kevin Hogan was fourth nationally in passing efficiency, and beyond all-purpose All-American McCaffrey the offense is stacked with solid but unheralded parts at the skill positions. They were brilliant on third and fourth down, ranking third in the country in conversion percentage in both categories.
The defense looked nothing like a traditionally dominant Cardinal unit, allowing 23 points and 375 yards per game to opponents to rank 38th and 49th respectively in scoring and total offense. What is more telling about that statistic is that no FBS defense spent less time on the field than Stanford thanks to an offense that ranked number one in time of possession. Linebacker Mike Tyler led the team with 4.5 sacks on the season… unlike seasons past, there were not as many parties in the backfield in 2015. Especially galling was the team’s red zone defense, which ranked outside the top 100 and allowed points on eight out of every nine visits inside their 20 by opposing offenses.
McCaffrey did a little bit of everything for the Cardinal, and he usually did it well. That included a 28.9-yard average on kick returns, which ranked eighth in the country. The punt return team was not quite as strong, though, ranking 98th among FBS teams. They also missed Ben Rhyne at punter, forcing special teams coordinator Pete Alamar to utilize both junior Alex Robinson and freshman Jake Bailey throughout the course of the year. At least they could turn to Conrad Ukropina, the senior kicker who finished third nationally in field goal percentage and was a Lou Groza Award semifinalist.
Iowa came out of nowhere to win its first dozen games, sweeping the Big Ten West title and coming within three points against Michigan State of playing in this year’s College Football Playoff. In the process Kirk Ferentz quieted the discontent and talk of stagnation in the program that had begun to resonate in Iowa City, though it was not offense that was the catalyst. C.J. Beatherd was an adequate replacement for Jake Rudock at quarterback, offering similar passing output and better mobility on the ground. Senior tailback Jordan Canzeri could top 1000 yards on the season in the bowl game, but that is only if he can play; the injury-prone back most recently suffered a leg injury in the first half of the Big Ten championship.
Iowa really excelled on defense this season, a top-15 unit nationally that held teams to 18.5 points per game. They were especially adept at stopping opponents’ drives with timely turnovers, averaging two per game as they snagged 18 interceptions and recovered eight fumbles. Defensive back Desmond King finished second in the country with eight picks of his own, returning one for a touchdown. Combined with a disciplined offense that rarely coughed up the ball, the Hawkeyes’ ballhawking defensive tendencies helped make Iowa the 10th best team in turnover margin in FBS.
King excelled in double duty as an all-purpose return man, ranking 13th nationally in punt return average and 27th in the country in kick return average. The junior showcased his blazing speed on both offense and special teams to give Iowa a great field-position advantage. Senior punter Dillon Kidd wasn’t such a field-flipping weapon, as the Hawkeyes finished 83rd in net punting average. Fellow senior Marshall Koehn was 15-of-19 in field-goal attempts, neither a major asset nor a major liability. Ferentz will feel more comfortable turning to his return game than his kicking units to win his first bowl game since 2010.
What is Likely to Happen
In this first-ever matchup between the two teams, several storylines will transpire. For Stanford, how much space will Christian McCaffrey be able to find against a top-10 Hawkeye defense to work his magic? On the other side, can Iowa take advantage of a Stanford defense of lesser vintage to put some points on the board? The sportsbooks say the Cardinal are 6.5-point favorites, but that presumes that their Big Ten foe can’t contain the Heisman finalist. It should be a legendary showdown for these two teams’ first encounter with one another, and there is no greater stage in the country for them to make their first acquaintance.
McCaffrey will get his yards on the ground and from Hogan in the passing game, but here’s guessing that King outshines him in the return stats by the end of this contest. The swing in field position that the Iowa return man provides will keep the Hawkeyes in this game, and he might also nab an interception from Hogan before the sun has set and the night is complete. Vegas is being awfully generous with this line given just how dominant the Iowa defense has been throughout the year, even in their sole defeat. This is likely to be a back-and-forth struggle, with the two teams trading punches in Pasadena and swapping the lead throughout the game. In the end, Iowa will position themselves as an early 2016 favorite in the Big Ten after upsetting the lower-ranked but more highly-touted Cardinal with a late touchdown.
Iowa 24, Stanford 23
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