No. 6 Stanford (11-2, 8-1 Pac-12) vs. No. 5 Iowa (12-1, 8-0 Big Ten)
Two years ago, I went out of my way to say that Stanford would run wild on Michigan State and that the Spartans’ offense wouldn’t be able to even find the end zone against Stanford’s defense. I looked like a fool. As my prediction shows, though, I never do learn.
This Iowa team reminds me a lot of Stanford’s 2012 squad, which looked mediocre against mediocre teams but looked great against great teams as well. I’m just not sure that I buy that Iowa’s schedule has prepared it for a challenge the caliber of Stanford. The Hawkeyes’ rush defense is top-15, but they haven’t faced a top-25 rushing offense. They’ve only allowed more than 30 points once this season, but Stanford comes in with a 12-game streak of 30 points or more. Stanford’s always had the talent to dice any defense in the nation, and now, David Shaw’s gameplanning and creativity have finally caught up to create a juggernaut that I’d take against any defense in this nation, straight-up. I’m confident that if Iowa wins the battle up front early in the Rose Bowl, Shaw will stretch the perimeter and empty his bag of tricks to get his playmakers the ball in space, where they have an advantage.
McCaffrey won’t go over 100 yards on the ground, but Love will eclipse 80. Hogan’s line will be somewhere in the neighborhood of 20-for-25 for 280 yards, with more than seven passes going to Austin Hooper and Dalton Schultz. Stanford will exploit its special teams advantage, faking a field goal(!!!) and watching McCaffrey take a late kickoff return to the house to open up the final margin. Hogan will be named offensive MVP in a perfectly-scripted end to one of the greatest careers in Stanford history.
Iowa finished its regular season undefeated, which undoubtedly deserves a significant amount of respect. At the same time, though, I would argue that the Hawkeyes arguably only played like a Rose Bowl-caliber team three times this season to get where they are — against Wisconsin, Northwestern and Michigan State. On the other hand, Stanford took an extra loss but showed an ability to play at a high level week in and week out.
If both teams play their absolute best, this will be a nail-biter. The edge talentwise goes to Stanford, who boasts a clear advantage across the board on offense and at several places on defense, but Iowa’s shown that it can match up with more talented teams like Michigan State and Wisconsin. And remember, Stanford over the past few years has struggled against teams that play a similar style to it as Iowa does — against Michigan State, Northwestern, Utah, USC and Notre Dame in various losses over the past few years. Iowa, at its best, will take Stanford down to the wire with its stifling run defense and remarkably efficient offense.
However, in a high-intensity, pressure-packed game like the Rose Bowl, my bet is on the team with consistency and experience, and that’s Stanford. Don’t underestimate the value of many of Stanford’s players going through the Rose Bowl week process twice before in addition to playing in three Pac-12 Championship games. Iowa, on the other hand, has played one game on a big stage in any of its players’ time — the Big 10 Championship. Similarly, as mentioned before, Stanford has shown that it can play at a championship-caliber level more consistently than Iowa.
Stanford’s offense goes over 30 points for the 13th straight game behind the best-called game of David Shaw’s career, Christian McCaffrey finishes with over 250 all-purpose yards and Kevin Hogan finishes with another highly efficient performance that allows him to eclipse Andrew Luck’s record for pass efficiency in a single season. This will be a one-possession game until the fourth quarter, but Stanford pulls away late.
Do suggests that Iowa’s schedule has not “prepared” them to handle Stanford, but I wouldn’t put too much stock into that. The Hawkeyes have done nothing but compete every single week of the season and most recently battled an elite Michigan State team down to the last few seconds. But the larger, more pertinent truth is that this game will not simply boil down to the previous four months of football, but also to which team can execute better for those 60 minutes when the eyes of the nation descend upon Pasadena.
In a brawl that promises to be as tight as tight can be, Stanford looks poised to emerge victorious. As Michael mentioned, the Cardinal have experienced this unique pressure cooker twice before and those lessons have not been lost on this squad. With a healthy defense capable of neutralizing the Hawkeyes’ Big 10-leading knack for explosive plays, Stanford will hold the Hawkeyes to field goals for much of the afternoon. Against a very physical opposing front, life will not be easy on Christian McCaffrey, but a defining feature of the 2015 season has been David Shaw’s ability to put his cast of spectacularly talented playmakers in positions to succeed, and that will shine through again with a number of new wrinkles to the offense in a game where the Cardinal will need it most.
At the end of the day Kevin Hogan is ready to lead one last campaign in his third Rose Bowl. As the sun sets over the San Gabriel Mountains, Stanford’s Ice Man engineers a final game-winning drive to finish off a truly special season. McCaffrey surpasses Toby Gerhart’s single-season school rushing record en route to offensive MVP honors while Ronnie Harris leads a rejuvenated secondary to win defensive honors in his final game in a Cardinal uniform.
Talking to the players over the past week, you can tell that they want this win more than anything. Obviously just “wanting” to win doesn’t translate to on-field success, and that’s not to say that Iowa doesn’t want the win. But the experience this team brings to the 102nd Rose Bowl — after playing on New Years’ Day in Pasadena two times before and coming away with three Pac-12 Championships to get there — will be the difference when both teams take the field.
Stanford has had its share of moments of brilliance and close calls (not to mention a still inexplicable loss to Northwestern and two fumbled snaps that led to a loss against Oregon). But the way the team has come together through this season and in the face of these challenges makes me believe that on Friday Stanford is going to put together one of its best performances of the season on its side of the ball and step up to the plate against the best team it’s faced all season.
Like Do, I also think McCaffrey won’t get over 100 yards, but #TightEndU will have its biggest performance of the season to help Stanford get down field. The statistically third-best kicker in the nation, Conrad Ukropina, will go a perfect 3-for-3, and having the 1-2 combo of Ronnie Holder and Alijah Holder, who will both be back on the field near 100 percent healthy for the first time since Oregon, will be huge. Josh Garnett will pancake Cole Fisher and/or Desmond King (if we’re lucky, maybe even on the same play) in a fashion that will rival his destruction of that poor safety from the Washington game. Shaw 2.0 will make the in-game adjustments he needs to and pull out some crazy tricks when faced with a typically staunch Iowa defense. In the final game of his career, Kevin Hogan will throw a pick, but the rest of his game will be one of the best performances of his career, as he leads Stanford to its second Rose Bowl victory in four years and shows the world that roses are indeed cardinal red.
I honestly cannot even provide a decent estimate of the number of times I’ve heard an analyst begin a sentence with “I don’t think Iowa can accomplish X” this season, only for the Hawkeyes to go ahead and do the job. It’s possible Kirk Ferentz and his boys are just the luckiest group in college football, but at some point I think we have to question whether the collective wisdom about Iowa isn’t just groupthink. The Hawkeye team I watched play this season looked like a team that could control games, that could make plays at any position and that genuinely enjoyed playing with each other. You’re welcome to call that “underwhelming” or “unproven,” but I’m not buying it.
Stanford has a profusion of offensive weapons, but I’ve never seen this team win a game where it wasn’t able to firmly establish the run. Hogan has become an excellent quarterback, but neither new nor old David Shaw has ever fully come to terms with the idea of putting the game in his hands. Iowa has the best chance of anyone all year of slowing McCaffrey, and if it succeeds even in part it’s going to be genuinely difficult for the Cardinal to overcome. Let’s remember that, even with McCaffrey generally running wild, it took a made 45-yard field goal and a missed 43-yarder for the team to snag two of its wins –- flip that, and you’ve got an 8-4 team that came in third place in the Pac-12 North.
The Hawkeyes are easy to underestimate -– they’re not glamorous and don’t have a big name coach or recruits –- but their steady consistency has allowed them to win a very large number of football games. This is a special group of players, getting cheered for by what may be the most dedicated fan base in all of bowl season. I want nothing more for my Stanford career to end on a win, but I have to trust my gut on this one. Beathard steals the show and leads Iowa to the Roses.