X's and O's: 5 Hawkeye keys to a Rose Bowl victory

Chad Leistikow

PASADENA, Calif. – We’ve talked about just about everything that has to do with Iowa football and the Rose Bowl in the last four weeks.

There are no more media interviews until Friday’s 4 p.m. kickoff against Stanford. The invasion of Iowa’s fan base to southern California is complete.

With one final pregame look, let's examine some X’s and O’s -- and five keys to a first Hawkeye victory in the Rose Bowl since 1959.

Run with power

You’ve probably heard that Stanford leads the country in time of possession at over 35 minutes a game. So, Iowa’s best plan to stop the clock-chewing Cardinal is to beat them at their own game.

Stanford’s rush defense allows a generous 4.6 yards a carry. That’s more than all but three Big Ten teams -- Purdue (5.1), Rutgers (5.1) and Indiana (5.2). Iowa can exploit that.

Cardinal defensive coordinator Lance Anderson said this is "one of the first times when you put on their film, you see using multiple tight ends, using fullbacks. We haven't seen as much of that in the Pac-12."

The Hawkeyes say they’ll go with the hot hand as the featured running back between Jordan Canzeri, LeShun Daniels Jr. and Akrum Wadley. Derrick Mitchell Jr. is the third-down back.

If Iowa can control the line of scrimmage, this could be a day made for Daniels -- Iowa’s biggest back at 225 pounds who rushed for 195 yards against Minnesota but was held to 17 yards on eight carries in the Big Ten Conference title-game loss to Michigan State.

“I've just make sure that I'm really just focusing on my reads, inside zones, outside zones, power plays, stuff like that,” Daniels said, “to make sure that come game time I can … play better than I did in the Big Ten Championship.”

LeShun Daniels (29), celebrating with fullback Macon Plewa vs. Purdue, needs to be a power-running factor against Stanford. He admits he was off in the Big Ten Championship game.

Rediscover 'Meerkat'

Stanford is most fearful of Iowa’s play-action passing game with quarterback C.J. Beathard. But when the Hawkeyes are clicking, they convert third downs.

Iowa is just 14.3 percent on third down in its last two games (3-for-21) after converting 46.8 percent in the first 11. Not so coincidentally, slot receiver Matt VandeBerg (nicknamed "Meerkat" for his slender build) has been held in check over the last three games, with six receptions for 52 yards. He had 55 grabs in Iowa's first 10.

VandeBerg has been Beathard’s favorite third-down target most of the year and needs be a factor in moving the chains against Stanford.

“(Beathard) expects me to be in a certain place,” VandeBerg said. “And I'm going to be there when he needs me to be there. I think that's how we go.”

Avoid over-aggression

We’ve reached the third key and this is the first mention of running back Christian McCaffrey. Containing Stanford’s Heisman Trophy runner-up is of high importance, obviously, and a big part of that rests on the shoulders of linebackers Ben Niemann (who might be seen covering McCaffrey on pass routes), Josey Jewell and Cole Fisher.

Those three guys are well-educated by position coach Jim Reid, but when the pads are popping they can’t afford to make a mistake. Instead of McCaffrey getting four yards on first down, Iowa needs to hold him to two.

Here’s what Stanford offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren said about the Cardinal approach:

“We're going to run right at them, and we're going to try to impose our will like we do against everybody. But there's also got to be some counters to take care of how well they run over the top. Their linebackers flow like crazy and do a great job. We've got to make them pay for some of those things, whether it's in the throw game … or whether it's just counters or whether we can get Christian to get one of those cutback lanes.”

Have a day, Desmond King

Stanford only throws a pass on 34 percent of its scrimmage plays, but when QB Kevin Hogan drops back, Iowa junior cornerbacks Desmond King and Greg Mabin need to be locked in.

Mabin had one of his better games as a Hawkeye against Michigan State, and he expects to be targeted as teams stay away from King, the Jim Thorpe Award winner.

“I wouldn’t want to throw to him either. That just comes with the territory playing opposite a guy like Desmond,” Mabin said. “I know teams are going to try to take their shots on me. That’s why I have to play how I’ve been coached.”

As for King, he says a big game in the Rose Bowl (such as a school-record-setting ninth interception) could help his NFL stock as he weighs whether to return to school or turn pro.

On top of that, King thinks this could be the game he finally breaks one in the kick-return game.

“I feel like it gets closer and closer each game,” King  said. “Just watching the film on this team, I feel like we have a pretty good chance in the special teams area, both sides, punt return and kick return. So we'll see what can happen.”

Don’t get lost in the moment

Iowa players got to drive into Pasadena on Thursday for a team photo at the Rose Bowl -- which is just a fraction of the setting they’ll see Friday when who-knows-how-many tens of thousands of Hawkeye fans will pour into one of football’s most famous stadiums.

Head coach Kirk Ferentz, who last coached a game here as an Iowa assistant 30 years ago, is excited to see the emotions from his players.

“They get it, but they don’t get it,” Ferentz said. “It’s one of those things.”

So Iowa will have all kinds of hype and emotion as its senior class tries to win a bowl game for the first time. On the other sideline, been-there, done-that Stanford will be participating in its third Rose Bowl in four years.

Iowa has succeeded in its record-setting 12-1 season by taking one task at a time. There’s not much worry internally that that approach has changed, but this is a stage none of these Hawkeyes have been on.

“We're embracing the opportunity,” Beathard said. “But at the same time you don't want to get overhyped for it, you want to stay focused. And I think we're doing a good job of that.”