Stanford smarts could confound Hawkeyes' defense

Chad Leistikow

PASADENA, Calif. — To win Friday’s Rose Bowl, Iowa must stop “sophisticated simplicity."

Kevin Hogan is 35-10 as Stanford's starting quarterback, so he's been-there, done-that. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound senior has thrown for 9,162 yards in his career and rushed for more than 1,000.

Naturally, a game against Stanford will require the mind as much as the body.

The fifth-ranked Cardinal present an intricate offense that led the nation in time of possession — more than 35 minutes a game — in part because of their renowned, private-school intelligence.

“We have a lot of bright guys on our team,” said quarterback Kevin Hogan, and he’s not kidding. Stanford football has a graduation success rating of 99 — the highest at any Division I program.

“Coaches have done a great job going out all over the country and finding us, and it takes a lot of hard work to learn this offense. It took me a long, long time. But it's necessary. It allows you to be successful, to have guys in the huddle be able to handle three, four plays in the huddle, and being able to go up and communicate each call.”

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Hogan is a fourth-year starter who has won 35 games — more than even Andrew Luck. He might decide to change a call with five seconds left on the play clock, and he’s able to communicate that to the other 10 guys on the field.

So even though the Hawkeyes have had 26 off days between games, their best film study might not be enough to outwit a Stanford team making its third Rose Bowl trip in four years.

Third-year offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren says the play sheet developed in Palo Alto, Calif., is more expansive than the one he held for four years as an assistant coach for the NFL’s New York Jets.

“We like to say it's sophisticated simplicity,” Bloomgren said. “You know, what we think we do is we take those schemes and put them out there. Honestly, if we weren't using all those schemes, I'm not sure we'd be taking advantage of all of our players’ talents.”

It’s smart. And it’s a challenge for an Iowa defense that also prides itself on being able to out-film-study the other team.

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Phil Parker’s defensive unit is built on reading keys and executing fundamentals. But if one of the 11 players is out of place, Hogan will notice. The Cardinal average more than 37 points a game and haven’t been held under 30 in their last 11 games.

“They just do such a good job of, hey, we're second-and-4 right now, let's maybe try to get this to third-and-1,” said Iowa senior linebacker Cole Fisher, one of the key Hawkeyes in trying to keep tabs on Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, the AP national player of the year. “And their short-yardage offense is phenomenal, really nothing that we've been able to … replicate. Just the way they come off the ball is just so low. It's tough.”

Iowa absolutely needs to get off the field on third downs to beat the favored Cardinal. Stanford is second nationally in third-down conversion success at 51.2 percent.

And listening to Hogan, it’s no wonder. Still, he is wary of a Hawkeye defense that is statistically better (10th nationally) than any he’s faced in 13 games this season.

“We practice the plays over and over again nonstop,” Hogan said, “and then just the way that our offense works with just the verbiage — I mean, the plays are so long and everyone is being told what to do that it allows you to create all kinds of different formations.”

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Game on. For Iowa's sake, hopefully Parker has devised a scheme to stop Stanford the way the late Norm Parker did against Georgia Tech in the 2010 Orange Bowl.

"You don't have too many third-down-and-long plays for them," Parker said. "There are a lot of third downs, 4 to 7 (yards), 4 to 8. They manage their down and distances very well. ... Where we're going to have to be good is on first and second down.

"They do a good job of taking control of what they want to do, and they do what they do, and we do what we do. It's going to be an interesting battle."