The final installment of our “Behind Enemy Lines” series takes us to the offices of The Daily Iowan in Iowa City, where Do-Hyoung Park (@dohyoungpark) is joined by Danny Payne (@dannyapayne), the editor of The Daily Iowan Pregame, to discuss the Stanford-Iowa matchup in the 102nd Rose Bowl this Friday and the associated storylines behind the game.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): It’s been a long, long time since Iowa fans have been able to smell the roses and participate in the Granddaddy of them All. What does it mean for the program and for the fans to finally reach this plateau — for many of them, for the first time in their lives?
Danny Payne (DP): So, so much is the short answer. The last time the Hawkeyes were in the Rose Bowl was 1991, so the vast majority of the undergrad population — and even some of the grad student body — wasn’t even born the last time Iowa was here. There aren’t any professional, major-league sports teams in Iowa, so the Hawkeyes are the professional team for the majority of the state, which makes it even more special.
Pair that with the way the program’s been trending — anyone who says they saw this coming is lying to you — and it makes this whole experience really, really cool for Iowa fans to be part of.
TSD: Just a year ago, it seemed like people were calling for Kirk Ferentz’s head in Iowa City. This year, he’s turned a corner and become affectionately known as “New Kirk” with added creativity in his gameplanning and play-calling — much like David Shaw has. Why do you think that happened so suddenly, especially 17 years into his head coaching tenure at Iowa?
DP: He just realized what he was doing simply wasn’t working, whether it was the playcalling or the personnel running those plays. Obviously the change from Jake Rudock to C.J. Beathard was huge, but for whatever reason, Ferentz had a revelation after the TaxSlayer Bowl. He looked in the mirror and changed. After 17 years, I think it’s really impressive for a coach to do.
Playcalling has been better, but not drastically different. The main difference is the execution. In addition to quarterback, Iowa’s also upgraded at running back (not to downplay Mark Weisman’s solid career, but he was a fullback playing running back for three years), strong safety and a few other spots. Guys getting a year better has helped tremendously, too.
TSD: It certainly hasn’t been pretty or convincing at times, but Iowa has, week after week, figured out a way to win, and there’s something to be said for that. That being said, we’ve seen a lot of different faces of the Hawkeyes this season, from the team that allowed 35 to Minnesota to the team that blew away a really good Northwestern team. Where did that inconsistency come from? Which kind of performance do you think is more indicative of the “true” Iowa team?
DP: Probably somewhere in between. I think Northwestern just didn’t show up for the Iowa game, and really hasn’t impressed me at all since after the ‘Cats lost to Ohio State in primetime in 2013, but that’s another conversation. Anyways, I don’t think Iowa is 30 points better than Northwestern, but it’s still superior. After LeShun Daniels Jr. busted off a big run at the end of the Minnesota game to put Iowa up two scores with about 1:30 left, the Hawkeyes started playing tight, a kind of “don’t blow this” moment, and the Gophers walked down and scored right away.
I guess to answer the question, I think this is a team that steps up when it needs to, and has done so on all but one drive this season, but hasn’t been able to put everything together, which would really impress people. So, some combination of the Northwestern, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan State games would describe this team, I guess. Full disclosure here, that answer could be terrible, but it’d probably take me tens of thousands of words to answer that completely.
TSD: Speaking of that schedule, the reason so many people doubted Iowa throughout the season was because of a fairly weak schedule — in fact, many said that the close loss to Michigan State legitimized Iowa more than the 12 wins before that. Do you agree with that sentiment? Do you feel that such a schedule has adequately prepared Iowa for what they’ll face against Stanford?
DP: The first part, the schedule wasn’t good. But the Big Ten is still the Big Ten, and a 12-win season is a 12-win season. You can’t argue with that.
And as far as MSU goes, to an extent, I don’t think Iowa would be playing here if Sparty blew ’em out. I think Ferentz and company showed they can hang with anyone (although I’m really not sold on the Michigan State team I saw, and think Alabama wins by at least two scores Thursday).
Is Iowa prepped for Stanford? Yes, for the most part. I think this game is going to come down to Iowa keeping Stanford behind the chains. Efficiency is key, and if the Hawkeyes can’t get off the field on third down — or convert third downs, but that’s a different story — then they’ll lose. But with the way this team has adjusted all year, and a month to dissect what happened in Indy on that last drive, I think the Hawks are ready. But you can only watch so much film and practice so much before you actually have to do the real thing, and that’s why I didn’t give a definitive yes.
TSD: Do you think Iowa has faced an offensive line as good as Stanford’s this season? The Cardinal’s line was a finalist for the Moore Award and has the Outland winner — and a pretty okay running back in Christian McCaffrey running behind it, too. Iowa hasn’t faced a top-25 rushing attack all season — do you think the Hawkeyes will be ready to match up with Stanford in the trenches?
DP: No, I don’t think Iowa’s seen an OL as good as this one. I suppose the best backs it has seen are Indiana’s Jordan Howard and the combination of guys from Michigan State. So from game experience, you could say the Hawkeyes are not ready, because Howard rushed for 174 against the Hawks and obviously we all saw the 22-play drive against Sparty.
But, on the other hand, bowl prep is bowl prep. I guess we’ll see.
TSD: For as good as Iowa’s defense has been this season, it’s had its games where it has looked shaky as well. What are the keys to beating this year’s Iowa defense? How do you think Stanford can fare in that regard behind McCaffrey and Kevin Hogan?
DP: At times — and he’s extremely up-and-down — targeting cornerback Greg Mabin has been a recipe for success for Iowa’s opponents. You just have to keep pounding away and pounding away. They don’t give up explosive plays, and it’s hard to really get them sideways because they’re so disciplined. Outside of the secondary going a little soft at times, there’s nothing too big I’ve seen for other teams to exploit. Execution is huge.
TSD: Let’s talk C.J. Beathard. Since he took over for Jake Rudock, he’s been accurate, poised, deceptively mobile and efficient, but it’s clear that Iowa doesn’t ask too much of him, much like Stanford of Hogan in past years. What does he bring to the table for Iowa? If Iowa’s running game can’t get going, can Beathard win a game with his arm?
DP: To answer the last question, we haven’t seen a game where Iowa has to do that. But if Beathard’s on, absolutely. The guy has a big-time arm and doesn’t make many mistakes. If he’s not, I’m not so sure.
What he brings to the table is excellent leadership — the best I’ve seen since I’ve watched Iowa — and I guarantee you no player on either team competes harder than Beathard does. That sets the tone for the rest of the squad, not only the offense. He’s the team’s MVP this season, and the stats may not back it up, but he’s such a gamer. I think you guys will really enjoy watching him Friday. When he gets running around and makes plays on the fly, it’s good stuff.
TSD: What is your key to the game for both sides? Which player on Iowa’s team will be most important to its success? How do you think the game will play out?
DP: I think third downs. I mentioned it above, but Iowa lost against the Spartans by not getting off the field on third down (not finishing drives offensively hurt, too). Stanford is an efficient team, so Iowa throwing it off its game that way is big. Iowa’s player is either Ben Niemann or Cole Fisher. You know you’re going to get really good play in the middle from Josey Jewell, but if the outside backers have good games, that’s huge. For Stanford, Hogan or McCaffrey. If both of them are on, it’s going to be tough for Iowa to keep up.
My prediction is 28-24 Iowa. I think it’s back-and-forth through the first three quarters, and Iowa pulls ahead in the fourth. Stanford will make a run at the end, but I think Iowa survives that attack.
Contact Do-Hyoung Park at dhpark ‘at’ stanford.edu and Danny Payne at daniel-payne-1 ‘at’ uiowa.edu.