Last month’s Big Ten championship football game did something strange.
When Iowa came within inches of reaching the College Football Playoff after going toe-to-toe with Michigan State, ESPN’s internal struggle of framing the Hawkeyes began.
Heading into Friday’s Rose Bowl against Stanford, is Iowa the plucky underdog showing its teeth, or is it still subtly undeserving of its No. 5 ranking?
The national cable sports network broadcasting the game decided to have it both ways in its New Year’s Day preview show.
Sure, the Worldwide Leader’s “Championship Drive” broadcast said some nice things about the 12-1 Big Ten runner-up. The Hawkeyes play together as a team. They possess balance and discipline. They’ll be prepared. The whole state is apparently coming out to watch.
Indeed, half of the four-person analytical panel (David Pollack and primary color analyst Kirk Herbstreit) said the Hawkeyes’ well-rounded makeup would prevail in Pasadena.
Yet Desmond Howard thought that Iowa would be the opposite of mentally focused after the Spartans’ 22-play drive sent them to a 16-13 win in Indianapolis and a spanking at the hands of Alabama this past Thursday.
Then there’s Lee Corso, he of the ignominious headgear, who decided that siding opposite Iowa houses the smart money.
Yes, many more emotional feelings resonated as the (wonderfully done) Brett Greenwood piece from last month was played again to characterize the toughness of the Iowa football player.
No, the network couldn’t help but mention Iowa’s three most recent Rose Bowl flops several times on the broadcast. Or that the Pac-12 is 7-2 in its last nine Rose Bowls against Big Ten opposition. Or that Stanford has been to Pasadena 15 times, behind just USC and Michigan.
But how neat was it, host Rece Davis mused, to see Iowa-emblazoned vehicles lining up to park at 2:30 a.m. Pacific Time on Friday? And how great must it be for a Great Plains state to experience the California glitz?
“When you grow up in the Midwest, this is it. For college football, it’s the highest level you can reach in the sport,” Herbstreit said. “… I feel like I’m 10 years old when I come in here. It’s going to be great for Iowa. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a fan base more excited than Iowa’s to be here.”
So what’s the narrative? Happy to be here, or ready to win?
Even the network had a hard time deciding, so what was left was a mélange of naughty and nice before the 4 p.m. kickoff.
One notable Iowa fan understood the mixed bag.
Stanford coach David Shaw said Friday morning that the Cardinal (11-2) must win the line of scrimmage.
“It all starts with guys up front. It’s going to be strength against strength,” he said. “We have to try to be efficient … positive on first downs, convert on third downs and hopefully end up with the football for a while.”
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz wants his squad ready for every play.
“They’re good in all special phases and play really hard,” he said. “It’s going to be a great challenge, but that’s how it’s supposed to be (in the Rose Bowl).”
Over on the Big Ten Network’s pregame show, Ferentz said he wants his defense to focus on stopping the Heisman Trophy runner-up in Stanford do-everything back Christian McCaffrey. That’s probably a good idea, given his 1,847 rushing yards, 540 receiving yards and 1,109 yards on punt and kick returns.
“You think of what he accomplished, and you partner that with the name Barry Sanders (of Oklahoma State and Detroit Lions fame), and you can stop right there,” Ferentz said.
“I don’t know how you do it,” BTN analyst and former Division I coach Glen Mason acknowledged of stopping the Stanford sophomore. But he said if Iowa could limit McCaffrey to 150 total yards, then the Hawkeyes would have to like their chances.
One common thread between the two shows was the focus on Iowa’s linebacker play. The Hawkeyes’ preference of a three-linebacker set will put rising star Josey Jewell under the microscope.
“Josey Jewell will have to make all the calls against Stanford’s multiple shifts and motion,” said the network’s Chuck Long, who quarterbacked Iowa in its 1986 Rose Bowl defeat.
ESPN game analyst Jesse Palmer, who will be on the call with play-by-play broadcaster Brent Musburger, wasn’t as confident in the linebackers’ ability to contain McCaffrey.
“McCaffrey can run the entire route tree, and Iowa likes to play with three linebackers on the field,” he said. “There will be opportunities for McCaffrey to run 1-on-1 against a linebacker and get into space.”
Everybody likes C.J. Beathard’s intangible toughness, though. To a man, analysts said the Iowa quarterback will be the primary reason for the Hawkeyes’ triumph Friday afternoon if you’re watching a black-and-gold victory.
Beathard, for his part, seemed comfortable with the spotlight.
“Any college football player dreams of playing in the Rose Bowl,” the junior said. “It’s one of the biggest games there is.”
And at least Musburger is aware … he’s dressed to the nines for the occasion and will be one of many to enjoy the afternoon.