Five Hawkeye keys to stopping Tennessee's offense

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. – The Iowa football team will have been in Jacksonville for three days by the time its TaxSlayer Bowl opponent, Tennessee, touches down Sunday.

What type of offense the Volunteers team plane brings is a bit of a mixed bag.

On one hand, they're young and have holes. On the other, they're stocked with talented playmakers.

So what will that mean for the hit-and-miss Hawkeye defense in the Jan. 2 game at EverBank Field? Here are five things to watch when Tennessee has the ball:

Vols' O-line is not good

Senior defensive tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat couldn't have hand-picked a better opponent for their college finales. Davis and Trinca-Pasat, the top two players in Iowa's front seven, will be going against a porous Tennessee offensive line.

The Volunteers rank 118th in college football in sacks allowed at 3.5 per game. Only six teams at the FBS level were worse: Miami (Ohio), Wyoming, Louisiana-Monroe, Idaho, Wake Forest and SMU.

The only Tennessee offensive lineman to start all 11 games is true freshman right guard Jashon Robertson. Look for Davis to polish his NFL resume in the trenches.

Joshua Dobbs, though

The ugly sacks-allowed stat is a stain that can't be scrubbed from Tennessee's 6-6 ledger. But with sophomore quarterback Joshua Dobbs, things have gotten better.

Dobbs is a more mobile run-pass threat, and he's been sacked just 11 times vs. 156 pass attempts after taking over as QB in Tennessee's final five games. Previous starter Justin Worley had a higher sack rate (29 times vs. 252 attempts).

Stopping Dobbs, Iowa safety John Lowdermilk said, will come down to discipline.

"They do a lot of running plays with him," the senior said. "It's a lot of trickery stuff. They get you going one way, and they're coming back the other way."

Vols quarterback Joshua Dobbs was sacked three times by Missouri in a 29-21 loss. Tennessee has been bothered by an ineffective offensive line, which forces Dobbs to make quick decisions.

Tennessee = Maryland

Lowdermilk was asked if the Volunteers reminded him of any of Iowa's 12 opponents.

His answer, Maryland, could trigger concern for Hawkeye fans.

They watched the Terrapins run wild at times in a 38-31 victory Oct. 18 in College Park. That was one of Iowa's most regrettable losses of the year after it led 14-0 and, for a while, knocked starting quarterback C.J. Brown from the game.

Jalen Hurd, a true freshman, is the Vols' leading rusher with 777 yards.

"They pull the guard, and they actually run toward the pulling guard, which is opposite (of what) a lot of teams do," Lowdermilk said. "They get your line confused. We've just all got to be ready and read our keys."

Don't lose sight of Pig

Lowdermilk referenced Tennessee's playmakers. Specifically, he could've been talking about Pig Howard.

The 5-foot-8, 187-pound junior is a small target but the Volunteers' top pass catcher with 52 grabs for 589 yards. Junior-college transfer Von Pearson (6-3, 183) has 31 catches for 318 yards.

Behind them, the Vols' receiving corps has been decimated by injuries. Four wideouts have been lost for the season, most recently 6-5, 243-pound starter Vic Croom.

Second-year Vols coach Butch Jones said recently that could mean more pass targets to running backs or tight ends.

"We'll play our style of play in our offense and our scheme," Jones said. "It's just the depth that's concerning."

Third downs and turnovers

Remember Iowa's 26-24 loss to Wisconsin? In what coach Kirk Ferentz called his team's best performance of the season, it would've been better — and possibly victorious — if Iowa made more third-down stops. Wisconsin went 7-for-13 in that department, converting several third-and-longs.

And that'll be where the Hawkeyes' can show improvement against a Tennessee team that went 8-of-28 on third-down conversions in their final two games — a home loss to Missouri and a narrow win against Vanderbilt.

Of course, the best way for Iowa to stop any drive is to force turnovers. Despite ranking No. 20 nationally in total defense, the Hawkeyes are 104th in takeaways. Tennessee is turnover-prone, with 21 giveaways.

"We want to go out and prove we're a lot better than games we've played in previously," said Lowdermilk, who had an interception in last year's Outback Bowl vs. LSU. "I think we'll go out there with a sense of hunger."