1. People on the west coast probably haven't watched Iowa play much this year because of the time zones and because no one expected Iowa to be so great this season. What do Cardinal fans need to know about this team? What are the basics; what kind of offense do they run and what kind of defense?
ROSS: Iowa had a very surprising season -- no one, not even Iowa fans, expected to be 12-1 and in the Rose Bowl this year. Last year ended in extremely dispiriting fashion (three straight losses, including a come-from-ahead loss to Nebraska at home and a complete beatdown from Tennessee in the Gator Bowl) and this season looked like it could be the last stand for head coach Kirk Ferentz & Co. Instead they provided one of their greatest coaching performances of the Ferentz Era, putting together the first 12-0 start in program history and coming within inches of making the College Football Playoff. There was a lot of talk about "New Kirk" all year, but fundamentally this is the same Iowa football team that we've seen for the last 15 years. They rely on rock-solid defense with a bend-don't-break approach that limits big plays and forces opponents to be extremely efficient on offense and play a standard 4-3 defense with quarters coverage most often. The offense is heavily pro-style and involves lots of running out of zone blocking looks to set up the play-action passing game.
2. Iowa has been disrespected all year long for their "easy" schedule. How do Hawkeye fans respond to such criticism? Do you think that their schedule was easy? How do you think Iowa would have done if they played OSU and Michigan?
ROSS: I think Iowa fans are just frustrated about that discussion because it's completely out of their control -- or the team's control, to a large extent. The conference schedule is set by the conference, so they're the ones who devised a schedule that didn't include games with Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan, or Penn State. (Actually, the first 2015 schedule the Big Ten released did include games with some of those teams, but a new schedule was needed after Realignmentpalooza struck and the Big Ten added Maryland and Rutgers.) No Iowa fans were excited about this schedule when it was released -- games against OSU, MSU, and Michigan are fun, certainly more so than games against Maryland or Indiana. Obviously Iowa has more control over their non-conference schedule and while it did lack games against top-tier non-league foes, it did include games against two Power 5 opponents (one of whom, Pitt, was very solid), which is more than many teams can say. And given that Iowa had such a good team, I think there was certainly a desire among Iowa fans to see how they matched up with some of the best teams in the conference. Objectively, I can't deny that it was a fairly easy schedule in many regards -- not playing the best Big Ten East teams was definitely a break. As for how they would have done against OSU and Michigan -- I think they would have been very competitive. They were inches away from beating Michigan State a few weeks ago, so I think they could have beaten OSU or Michigan, although probably not both.
3. Stanford's pass defense is the most questionable aspect of the team as a whole. A way to beat Stanford, as Oregon showed, will be to throw the ball with efficiency. Do you think Iowa will need to change their ground and pound model or can they stick to their ways?
ROSS: I don't think Iowa will be airing it out 40 times in this game -- and if they do, that's probably not a good thing for their hopes of winning. Beathard was a generally accurate passer this year -- he completed 61.4% of his passes for the season and was at his best against the best defenses that Iowa faced (he completed 67.5% of his passes against Pitt and 69.2% of his passes against Michigan State) -- but Iowa's strength is running the ball and using that to set up the pass. I expect them to try and do the same against Stanford. They're going to try to establish the run first and foremost.
4. Jordan Canzeri and LeShun Daniels Jr have led the Hawkeyes with a combined 1,585 yards and 20 TDs. But LeShun Daniels was held to only 17 yards against Michigan State in the BIG 10 title game, was this due to the fact that Canzeri was hurt? What did MSU do to slow down an impressive running game?
ROSS: Canzeri's injury was definitely a blow for the Iowa offense because he's been Iowa's most effective runner this year -- a good blend of speed, surprising power, and great instincts. He was excellent at reading his blocking and hitting the right hole at the right moment. He's expected to be healthy for the Rose Bowl, which will certainly be a boost for the Iowa running game. Daniels did struggle against Michigan State's defense but a lot of his issues were down to the fact that the Spartans have a top-ten rush defense. They had the speed in the front seven to cover the edges and the strength to plug up the middle. They were also committed to shutting down Iowa's ground game and weren't afraid to commit extra defenders in the box. Regrettably, Iowa did very little to test their secondary down the field until late in the game.
5. The key matchup this Rose Bowl will be Iowa's #9 ranked rushing defense against Stanford's #18 rushing attack. What will be the key for Iowa's rushing defense against Christian McCaffrey and Stanford's other ball carriers?
ROSS: I think the key for Iowa will be making sure they don't lose their assignments and keep Stanford for picking up big gains on early downs. If Stanford gets in a lot of third and short situations, that's going to be a big problem for Iowa and could lead to a lot of long drives for Stanford and a very tired Iowa defense late in the game. If Iowa can stop Stanford on early downs, I like their odds of minimizing the amount of damage that Stanford's running game can do. Beyond that, Iowa just needs to avoid giving up big plays in the running game, which they've been generally good at doing this year.
6. Who are some impact players for the Hawkeyes on both defense and on offense?
ROSS: We already mentioned Beathard and Canzeri briefly, but they're certainly going to be key names to know on offense. Beathard has been the engine for the Iowa offense this year, making smart decisions pre- and post-snap, extending plays with his legs, and providing a much-needed added dimension to the Iowa offense with his ability to run for first downs. He's also been able to add more downfield passing to the Iowa offense than it had under the previous QB (Jake Rudock, now with Michigan), which has opened things up for the entire offense. Canzeri has been the best running back for Iowa, but Daniels, Akrum Wadley, and Derrick Mitchell have been effective parts of the running game, too. Mitchell has been strong on third downs (catching passes and providing blitz pick-up), while Wadley has provided a speed threat that Iowa hasn't had in the backfield for a while.
In the passing game, the main threats are receivers Matt VandeBerg and Tevaun Smith and tight ends George Kittle and Henry Krieger-Coble. VandeBerg and Krieger-Coble have been strong possession receivers and adept at helping the Iowa offense pick up first downs and move the chains. Smith has been Iowa's main big play threat -- he averages 18.2 yards per catch and has been Iowa's main threat downfield. Kittle has been a big weapon around the end zone -- six of his 20 catches have gone for touchdowns.
On defense, Josey Jewell has led Iowa in tackling (119) from the middle linebacker position and has done a very good job of making pre-snap reads and getting the Iowa defense into the right positions. Nate Meier was Iowa's most disruptive defender on the defensive line -- he led the team with 10.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. He's also been a key part of Iowa's run defense. And Desmond King, the reigning Thorpe Award winner, is the main name to know in the secondary. He snared eight interceptions this year, second-most in the country, and had 20 total pass break-ups. Quarterbacks who chose to throw on him usually wound up regretting it. He was also a key part of Iowa's run defense and an eager and solid tackler.
7. What are some players that are lesser known that will make a huge splash in the Rose Bowl?
ROSS: I mentioned him briefly above, but Akrum Wadley could be a difference-maker for Iowa on offense. He ran for 463 yards and 7 TDs on 74 carries this year, a team-best 6.3 yards per carry. He's Iowa's best option to break a big play on offense, which may be necessary to keep pace with Stanford. On defense, Iowa's going to need strong performances in the back seven -- Cole Fisher emerged from depth chart obscurity to be a solid contributor on defense and Jordan Lomax, Iowa's starting free safety, will likely need to make some plays for Iowa on defense for them to win on Friday. He was Iowa's third-leading tackler (92) and delivered some ferocious hits that tended to dissuade receivers from spending much time going across the middle.
8. What is your prediction for the Rose Bowl?
ROSS: I expect a very good game, one that figures to be close in the fourth quarter. The three things that I think will be most important are turnovers, special teams, and whether Stanford is able to wear down the Iowa defense. Iowa's been excellent at forcing turnovers (and not turning the ball over themselves), while Stanford has done a tremendous job of avoiding turnovers all season. Any turnovers in this game could be a big swing for one team or the other. And obviously McCaffrey will be a huge key in the game. He's a threat in many aspects, but I'm most concerned about his ability to break big plays in the passing game (him matched up on Iowa's linebackers is terror-inducing) and in special teams (Iowa's 106th in opponent kick returns and they gave up a touchdown to Maryland's Will Likely, an excellent return man). Michigan State badly wore down Iowa's defense -- as evidenced by the epic 9-minute (!) game-winning drive that they went on at the end of the Big Ten Championship Game -- and if Stanford is able to do the same, the fourth quarter could be painful watching for Iowa fans. I'm optimistic that Iowa will be the team making big plays in the fourth quarter this week, though, so I'm going to take Iowa, 31-27.
Thank you to Black Heart Gold Pant's Ross for collaborating with us to find out a little bit more about the Hawkeyes. Be sure to check out BHGP portion of the Q&A and their other excellent content. The Rose Bowl will be on January 1 at 5:00 EST or 2:00 PST.