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The Iowa Caucus: Front seven

Iowa linebacker Josey Jewell (right) runs back an interception during the Iowa-Nebraska game at Memorial Stadium on Friday, Nov. 27, 2015. The Hawkeyes defeated the Cornhuskers, 28-20, to finish off a perfect regular season. (John Theulen/The Daily Iowan)

This is the fourth installment of The Stanford Daily’s seven-part preview series on the Iowa Hawkeyes, who will face Stanford in the 102nd Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California on Jan. 1, 2016. This piece will look at Iowa’s front seven. Previous parts can be read at the following links:

Part 1: Overview
Part 2: Passing game
Part 3: Running game

The low-down: Stanford fans probably don’t need to be reminded of what happened the last time the Cardinal went up against a Big Ten front seven, but in case you’ve forgotten (or blocked from memory) that Northwestern game, here’s a quick reminder of what happened: 27 rushes for 85 yards (a season-low) for an average of 3.15 yards per rush (also a season-low). Yikes.

Yes, this Stanford offensive front is miles ahead of where it was in that Evanston debacle in Week 1, but let’s give credit where credit is due: Northwestern’s front seven was nasty. And here’s the thing: Iowa’s front seven is even nastier. The Hawkeyes’ rugged front sits at 11th in the nation allowing just 115 rushing yards per game, allows just 3.43 yards per rush and is one of just nine units in the country that has allowed 10 or fewer rushing touchdowns this season.

Anchored by a combination of experienced seniors and talented youngsters alike, the Iowa 4-3 front won’t make your eyes pop with its sack or tackle-for-loss numbers, but it plays seamlessly as a unit, covers its gaps with lots of discipline, and has tremendous tackling ability, which have made the Hawkeyes the only team in the Big Ten not to have allowed a run play of over 40 yards this season.

Best player: The Iowa front seven is the classic example of “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” — the Hawkeyes mainly limit their opponents through fundamentally sound team defense instead of extreme playmaking ability from any one or two defenders in the unit. That being said, the clear focal point of this defensive front is in the linebacking corps, where sophomore middle linebacker Josey Jewell finds himself in the middle of the action far more often than not.

Think of Jewell as a corn-fed, Midwestern version of Blake Martinez. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound sophomore has got a great sense for where the ball is going on any given play and takes fantastic routes to the ball — and rarely misses on his tackles. He’s the Iowa team leader and second in the Big Ten with 119 tackles on the season and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors for his efforts this year.

Much like Big Blake, Jewell also has deceptive coverage ability as well and has accounted for 3 of the Hawkeyes’ 18 interceptions on the season, even returning one of them for a touchdown in Iowa’s victory over North Texas in Week 4. Although fellow linebacker Cole Fisher is also in the top 10 of the Big Ten in tackles, the versatility, instincts and talent that Jewell brings to the table sets him up to be one of the top defenders in the conference for years to come.

Best performance: Remember how good Northwestern’s two-headed rushing attack of Justin Jackson and Clayton Thorson was in Week 1 against Stanford? They ran for 225 yards and averaged 4.17 yards per carry against what turned out to be a pretty decent Stanford defensive front.

Well, Iowa’s front seven made Northwestern’s run game look downright silly in the Hawkeyes’ 40-10 domination of the Wildcats in Week 7, as Iowa held Northwestern to just 51 yards on 26 carries (1.96 yards per rush). The consistent Jackson was held to just 30 yards on 10 carries, his second-lowest rushing output of the season, and the Iowa front also recovered two fumbles, notched 5.0 tackles for loss and 3.0 sacks in an all-around tackling clinic.

Worst performance: The one team that was able to figure out Iowa’s front seven this season was the 6-6 Indiana Hoosiers, which led all Iowa opponents (by a wide margin) by taking 39 carries for 227 yards for 5.82 yards per rush in the Hawkeyes’ narrow 35-27 win in Week 10. Indiana was the only team to go over 200 yards on the ground and average over 5 yards per rush against Iowa this season, and did so on the back of a 174-yard performance from stud running back Jordan Howard, who also found the end zone twice in the game. Iowa also had a very mortal defensive showing in the following game against Minnesota before bouncing back with solid efforts against Purdue and Nebraska.

Highlights of the season: It’s really hard to find individual defensive highlights for this front seven, because, as mentioned earlier, it’s much more of a concerted team effort that carries through all 60 minutes of games that really defines this Iowa run defense any more than any specific plays.

With that said, this front seven has certainly had its moments this season — for one, take a look at this bone-crunching strip-sack of Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson by Jewell. Northwestern goes for a spread, 4-WR look, Iowa shows man defense and then brings Jewell on a dime blitz that the Wildcats aren’t prepared for, and… well, you can almost feel the results through a computer screen (skip to 6:05):

Next, skip ahead to 1:15 in the following video. Who doesn’t love a nice, tasteful Fat Guy Touchdown? Iowa brings the house on Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong (I use the term “quarterback” very loosely here) with a six-man blitz, and with pressure raining down on him, Armstrong lofts a checkdown that’s tipped on an incredibly athletic move from right defensive end Parker Hesse, who recovers the interception and takes it to the house.

In fact, Tommy Armstrong was the gift that kept giving in that game for Iowa’s front seven, as Hawkeye big men accounted for not one… not two… but three interceptions in that game (linebackers Jewell and Fisher had the other two). Talk about a clinic.

Biggest questions: Lots of people have brought Iowa’s weak strength of schedule into question, and looking at the string of opponents the Hawkeyes have faced this season, the biggest concern is that Iowa hasn’t yet faced a top-25 rushing team in the country. Stanford clocks in at No. 18 and also happens to have one Christian McCaffrey, who, if you haven’t noticed, is probably the best in the country at this whole “running the football” thing. The Stanford offensive line has also matured considerably since the start of the season, and Iowa may find itself caught by surprise by the Tunnel Workers’ Union’s physicality in the early goings on Jan. 1.

The other major question is whether or not Iowa’s linebackers can cover Stanford’s big tight ends in the middle of the field. Given that they play in the Big Ten, where traditional, pro-style offenses are still king and the spread is still a gimmick, Iowa likely isn’t too used to having to account for more than two or three receivers at a time on any given play — especially not big, deceptively fast men like Austin Hooper and Dalton Schultz.

Matchup with Stanford: Iowa has a pair of what can best be described as “wedges” up the middle in defensive tackles Jaleel Johnson (310 pounds) and Nathan Bazata (284 pounds), who will ostensibly look to make life very difficult for Stanford’s between-the-tackles run game. Fortunately for Stanford, the Cardinal are also very good at running off-tackle with their bread-and-butter power run, where they have a considerable size advantage with big tackles Kyle Murphy and Casey Tucker looking to seal the edge against undersized defensive ends Nate Meier (254 pounds) and Hesse (240 pounds).

However, given that Iowa is able to use its linebackers aggressively due to its lockdown secondary, Stanford is likely going to need to keep Jewell and Fisher off-balance by mixing in some heaping spoonfuls of Bryce Love to the perimeter to keep the linebackers out of the box and force the Iowa defensive backs to make tackles in space. Given the discipline, tackling ability and deceptive speed of Iowa’s linebackers and safeties, this is a task that’s much easier said than done.

At the end of the day, though, Stanford has a combination of talent up front, playmaking ability from McCaffrey and Love in the backfield, and creativity from David Shaw that Iowa hasn’t seen at all this season — and because of that, I’m giving a cautious advantage to Stanford.

 

Contact Do-Hyoung Park at dhpark ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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