Rose Bowl notebook: 3 is the magic number for Iowa's 'D'

Chad Leistikow
Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook succombs to Iowa's "Raider" package in the Big Ten title game as linebackers Aaron Mends (31), Bo Bower and Ben Niemann sack him in the Dec. 5 game in Indianapolis. Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan thinks the Cardinal will be able to handle Iowa's third-down defense.

LOS ANGELES — One of the many tenets of the Iowa football rebirth in 2015 was to limit big plays by the opponent. On Monday, Hawkeye defensive coordinator Phil Parker laid out the case of that being a recipe to handling Stanford in Friday’s Rose Bowl Game in Pasadena, Calif.

The football staff crunched the numbers, and determined three was the defense's magic number.

“Going back and studying it … we figured if we give up maybe three or less big plays in a game, then you're going to keep the score down to about 13,” Parker said. “Anything after that, above three, you're probably going to give up like 23 points.”

Iowa has given up 46 big plays from scrimmage of 20 or more yards — about 3½ per game. That number drops to less than one a game in plays over 30 yards. Iowa’s opponents have only registered 12 plays of 30-plus yards — fewest in the Big Ten Conference. The 12-1 Hawkeyes haven’t allowed any scrimmage play longer than 28 yards in their last three games.

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But going against 11-2 Stanford, which averages 37.3 points and 436 yards a game, presents a whole new challenge.

Cardinal running back Christian McCaffrey, the Heisman Trophy runner-up, sounded impressed with Iowa’s defense.

“They don't do a whole lot, because they're so good at what they do,” McCaffrey said. “You look all over the field, and they've got a physical, physical defense. The safeties play real well in the run game instead of the corners. It's something you definitely have to prepare for, because they do things right. They don't put themselves in a lot of very tough situations.”

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Bring on the Raider?

One thing that Stanford doesn’t seem intimidated by is Iowa’s “Raider” package on some third-down calls, where the Hawkeyes insert linebackers Bo Bower and Aaron Mends to replace the defensive tackles. Iowa’s defenders roam around the line of scrimmage, in an effort to disguise where a possible blitz is coming from.

Stanford fourth-year starting quarterback Kevin Hogan was asked how to deal with the Raider.

“We know who's coming,” he answered with a smile. “We'll be all right.”

He expanded on that: “There are tendencies that we feel like we can game plan. We'll see. Hopefully we do pick it up. I mean, it's an interesting defense. … We've seen it a few times this year. So hopefully our protection plan is good. I feel confident in it, though.”

Perhaps Hogan's confidence comes from this stat: Stanford ranks No. 2 nationally in third-down conversion percentage (.512).

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Christian who?

On the flip side, Iowa players haven’t been caught up in the Heisman hype over McCaffrey, who racked up 3,496 all-purpose yards in 13 games. He was the AP’s national player of the year.

“I hadn't heard too much about him,” Iowa linebacker Cole Fisher said. “I didn't follow him in the Heisman race too much, and that was probably the first time I heard about him.”

Added Iowa defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson: “We just try to focus on us and get prepared for the game. We hadn't really heard that much about (McCaffrey).”

Jaleel’s coming back

Johnson was a dominant, 310-pound force at defensive tackle during much of the season. But the fourth-year junior said he’s coming back to Iowa next year, as talk of going to the NFL swirls around junior teammate Desmond King.

“I just want to keep on going, keep pushing,” Johnson said, “never become complacent.”

Johnson will be a big factor in helping Iowa try to manhandle Stanford’s powerful offensive line, led by Outland Trophy-winning left guard Joshua Garnett. Johnson, though, will likely be matched up against fellow Illinois native Johnny Caspers, Stanford’s senior right guard.

“Jaleel has definitely improved all year,” Parker said. “I think a big guy like that that can move and be violent, and he does disrupt, even in the passing situation, he really takes up a couple guys if he can. As long as he's not getting (pushed) upfield, we'll be in good shape.”

Stepping up

Monday provided media availability for Parker and five of Iowa’s top defensive players. The fourth-year defensive coordinator was asked if any of his younger guys had caught his eye during bowl preparations.

He singled out redshirt freshman Joshua Jackson, a cornerback who tried his hand at wide receiver in the spring. Jackson found himself on top receivers on occasion in Iowa’s Raider defense, and finished with eight tackles and two pass breakups. If King turns pro, Jackson might be the leading candidate to compete for that corner spot.

“He's really improved, moving from a wide receiver to a defensive back and being a big part of our third-down package,” Parker said. “To see him develop and get better as a player, I'm really excited about him.”

Fair weather?

Fisher had one of the best lines of the day about Iowa players’ observations in Los Angeles, where temperatures dip into the high 40s at night in December.

“We went out yesterday a bunch,” he said.  “It was definitely weird seeing people all bundled up when it was 50 degrees out.”