There’s ball control, and then there’s the soul-crushing, merciless meat grinder of the nine-minute, 22-play, 82-yard touchdown drive that Michigan State tormented Iowa’s front seven with to close out the Big Ten Championship against Iowa on Dec. 5.
Iowa’s defense isn’t used to getting pushed around like that — ever. For a defense that prides itself on its execution and its rugged physicality at the line, there can’t be many things in the world more demoralizing than having a group of 300-pound man-beasts exerting their will on it play after play.
Stanford’s offensive linemen certainly seemed thrilled about the prospect of trying to subject Iowa to that kind of torment one more time on Friday in the 102nd Rose Bowl.
“With how similar our teams are, it could come down to that last possession,” said senior left tackle Kyle Murphy. “Whenever that’s the case and you’ve got an opportunity like that, it’s never a bad thing, and you always want to seize it and do it for the glory and do it for your brothers.”
There won’t be too many mental games or chess matches in Pasadena. No frills, no fancy blitzes, no deceptive coverages, no nonsense. Only clean, hard, simple football — just the way Iowa likes it. The Hawkeyes’ defense’s simple, execution-oriented formula has worked all season, and they don’t see any reason to change that now — even in the wake of Michigan State’s walk-off.
“It’s all about fundamentals,” said Iowa defensive lineman Jaleel Johnson. “Stick with what we’ve been doing all year.”
“They don’t have a lot of different complex schemes, but the ones they do, they run as good as anybody,” said junior tight end Austin Hooper. “It’s not as much a mental game because of the lack of coverages and disguising things. It’s just more execution because they’re not really going to try to fool you.”
For their part as well, Iowa’s defenders seemed very adamant that what made Stanford’s offense so potent this season was that they stuck to their identity through high and low and just executed it incredibly well — a mirror image of sorts to the defensive scheme that they take so much pride in.
“They have a gameplan going in and they don’t switch much from it,” said Iowa linebacker Cole Fisher. “They know what they’re good at, and they stick to it.”
But while it’s true that the Stanford offense likes to run the ball, what seems to be different this season has been that the Cardinal have been willing to adjust when things haven’t been working, or adjust their gameplan to exploit the specific weaknesses of opposing defenses.
Case in point: When Washington State went all-in on stuffing Christian McCaffrey, the Cardinal went to a read-option look and let Kevin Hogan keep the ball for large swaths of yardage. When Washington’s stellar front seven kept McCaffrey in check, the Cardinal let him run downfield and got him the ball through the air.
With that in mind, it wouldn’t be all too surprising to see Stanford’s offense flash some more creativity on Friday — creativity, it seems, that Iowa certainly isn’t expecting. Remember the Drew Terrell reverse pass out of the Wildcat on the first drive of the 2013 Rose Bowl?
“We’re going to run right at them, and we’re going to try to impose our will like we do against everybody,” said offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren. “But there’s also got to be some counters to take care of how well they run over the top.”
Contact Do-Hyoung Park at dhpark ‘at’ stanford.edu.