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The Iowa Caucus: Secondary

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This is the fifth 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 secondary. Previous parts can be read at the following links:

Part 1: Overview
Part 2: Passing game
Part 3: Running game
Part 4: Front seven

The low-down: If Iowa is known for playing “boring” or “traditional” football, the team’s defensive backfield must be working tirelessly to correct that stereotype. The unit is a certified turnover-generating machine, ranking ninth in the nation in total interceptions, and it has become a force that can simultaneously excite and reassure Hawkeye faithful when games are coming down to the wire.

Led by Jim Thorpe Award-winner Desmond King and his eight picks, the group effectively served as guardians of Iowa’s undefeated regular-season record – it’s easy to imagine the team could have had three or four losses had it not been for the momentum that its defensive backs created.

The secondary’s depth goes far beyond King, however. Safety Jordan Lomax earned third-team all-Big Ten honors after leading the unit with 93 tackles, and backfield partner Miles Taylor proved an increasingly valuable asset as the year progressed. Don’t sleep on number two corner Greg Mabin either, as the junior delivered two game-changing interceptions when the team needed them most.

Best player: Who else but unanimous first-team All-American King? Best known for his second-in-FBS interception total, the Detroit native’s game doesn’t really have a weakness – he’s a consistent tackler and a reliable route-reader, and his talented pair of hands seem perpetually ready to make a play whenever an errant pass does come his way.

King is in many ways the prototypical Iowa Hawkeye. A three-star recruit out of high school (described by ESPN as a “non-BCS/BCS ‘tweener'”) who was bound for Ball State until Iowa extended a last-minute offer, the cornerback almost immediately proved a diamond in the rough and just kept getting better under coach Kirk Ferentz and defensive coordinator Phil Parker. He has now become a truly instinctive player who repeatedly seems to play above his ability and is the clear leader of the entire Iowa defense in one if its best years in recent memory.

Best performance: It wasn’t the most glamorous in terms of forced turnovers (check out the Maryland game if you must), but the Iowa secondary’s showing against Michigan State demonstrated how well this team can play against a nationally-acclaimed opponent. The Hawkeyes held all-Big Ten quarterback Connor Cook to his worst QBR all season on 16-of-32 passing, making Michigan State’s 17-point performance against Ohio State look like a veritable explosion of offense by comparison. Meanwhile, all-Big Ten receiver Aaron Burbridge was largely contained by King (his 61 receiving yards were considerably offset by 20 yards’ worth of penalties against him) as the team effectively removed the possibility of the Spartans recording a passing touchdown through its reliable, mistake-free coverage.

Worst performance: There’s nothing too unforgivable here, but you’d probably have to point to the Iowa/Minnesota rivalry game in which the Hawkeyes allowed the Gophers over 300 passing yards. Quarterback Mitch Leidner and his team ranked 13th in the Big Ten in scoring offense going into the game, yet for some reason, the Iowa defense didn’t appear to have many answers for them as they recorded their second-highest point total of the season. The Hawkeyes still effectively controlled the game from start to finish and did more than enough to bring the Floyd of Rosedale back to Iowa City, however, so read into this outing at your own peril.

Highlights of the season: Inevitably, this section is going to be a bit of a highlight reel for (you guessed it) Desmond King – and for good reason. The cornerback delivered big play after big play, changing the shape of games as he went. In this interception against Pittsburgh, for instance, King perfectly jumps the route of all-ACC wide receiver Tyler Boyd, robbing the Panthers of what looked to be at worst a field goal in the process.

Of course, the danger posed by King only starts once he comes up with a pick. As Iowa’s starting kick and punt returner, King excels at finding holes and juking defenders, something he occasionally puts in action after forcing turnovers as well. This interception against Maryland starts after he seems to recognize the play better than any of the Terrapins’ players, a difficult feat on its own, then continues epically as he finds a crease and wriggles around everyone in an 88-yard touchdown runback.

If you must watch something that doesn’t include King, it might as well be this Lott Impact Trophy candidacy video of Lomax. In addition to demonstrating the back’s ability to run down interceptions of his own (2:09) and to provide timely help in coverages (3:25), it provides a good idea of the steady confidence that the senior safety brings to the secondary that allows the rest of the team to make plays in front of him.

Biggest questions: With throwing the ball in the vicinity of King clearly a dicey proposition at best, many opposing quarterbacks targeted Iowa’s other corner, Mabin, when they needed to make plays. For most of this season, this strategy proved reasonably successful, generating a sizable number of completions and interference penalties with reasonably little to worry about. Mabin seemed to step up in Iowa’s final regular season game against Nebraska and in the Big Ten Championship game against Michigan State, however, and the unit’s performance against Stanford will likely depend in large part on whether the converted wide receiver can continue to elevate his play in Pasadena.

Matchup with Stanford: As good as Iowa’s secondary is, it isn’t necessarily perfectly tailored to stop Stanford’s passing game. The Cardinal truly have a receiver for every purpose, and Iowa may have its work cut for it in locking down every player on every route.

Senior wide receiver Devon Cajuste poses potentially the biggest problem for the Hawkeyes. At 6-foot-4, Cajuste has five inches of height on King, a difference that’s difficult for even the best corners to reconcile. Mabin could cover Cajuste while King focuses on Michael Rector, but that could leave the unit vulnerable if Cajuste looks as good as he did against Notre Dame’s lower-rated defensive backs.

Another issue for Iowa may be that Stanford’s number-one receiver by yards isn’t actually a receiver at all but running back Christian McCaffrey. The Hawkeyes’ linebackers will surely have some role in locking down the Heisman finalist, but McCaffrey has a knack for finding ways to get open against single coverages from slower players. Lomax and Taylor, the likely helpers, have proved reliable last-resort tacklers throughout the season, but McCaffrey should provide them their greatest challenge yet through his shifty running and incredible quickness. This one could go either way.

 

Contact Andrew Mather at amather ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Andrew Mather served as a sports editor and as the Chief Operating Officer of The Daily. A devout Clippers and Iowa Hawkeyes fan from the suburbs of Los Angeles, Mather grew accustomed to watching his favorite programs snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. He brought this nihilistic pessimism to The Daily, where he often felt a sense of déjà vu while covering basketball, football and golf.