Thursday December 31st, 2015

Do you love old-school, hard-nosed, smashmouth football? Do you long for the days of three yards and a cloud of dust? Then this is the non-playoff bowl for you. (And how fitting that it’s the oldest bowl game of them all!) Two programs known for defense—Hawkeyes cornerback Desmond King, an All-America, has picked off eight passes this year—will show a smidge more offense than you’re anticipating … but still, because both these teams give off a vintage football vibe, “more offense” is a relative term. A veteran quarterback (Stanford’s Kevin Hogan) and seasoned offensive line (Iowa, led by All-America center Austin Blythe) will make for an entertaining game.

Points of interest

1. Christian McCaffrey, Stanford running back and all-purpose star

The 2015 Heisman Trophy runner-up, McCaffrey has already racked up 3,496 all-purpose yards this year (1,847 rushing, 540 receiving, 1,109 returning), and his last output was staggering: 461 all-purpose yards in a Pac-12 title game win over USC. His ability to cut and spin out of defenders’ grasps in the open field has drawn comparisons to Reggie Bush.

McCaffrey is just a sophomore, so consider this game the beginning of his 2016 Heisman campaign—and don’t be surprised if he returns a kick for a touchdown, just for flair.

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2. The Hawkeyes ground attack

All hail the Iowa offensive line, which did its job blocking and opening up lanes for basically the entire team this season. Iowa has gone through its share of running backs this season—Jordan Canzeri, a 5’9”, 192-pound senior leads the Hawkeyes with 976 yards and 12 touchdowns, playing in 11 of 13 games because of injury—but continues to run through and run over opposing defenses. Iowa has 35 rushing touchdowns, ranking first in the Big Ten (tied with Ohio State) and seventh nationally.

It boasts one of the most balanced attacks in the country with 2,496 rushing yards compared to 2,623 passing yards, but if things get tough, the Hawkeyes will turn to the ground game. LeShun Daniels (609 total yards, eight touchdowns) and Akrum Wadley (463 yards, seven scores) can help Canzeri.

3. But what about the passing game?

So much talk about both teams’ ground games—can’t the receivers get any love? It’s possible that each defense will be so fixated on stopping the other team’s best runner that someone from the air will emerge to be the hero.

For Stanford, keep an eye on Devon Cajuste. McCaffrey is the team’s leading receiver, but Stanford has four guys who average between 31 and 41 receiving yards per game. Cajuste has big playmaking ability, even though he’s recorded only 375 yards this year. He went for 125 vs. Notre Dame and was huge in that win.

For Iowa, it’ll be Tevaun Smith. Like Stanford, the Hawkeyes are balanced in the receiving game, with four players who average 22 yards or more. Smith chips in with 45.5 receiving yards per game, but he’s the only player to go for more than 100 yards in two different games this season. Of course, good receiving games come because good quarterbacks, so watch for Iowa’s C.J. Beathard (202 of 329 for 2,570 yards with 15 touchdowns and four interceptions).

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Burning Question: Which Kevin Hogan shows up?

Hogan has gone a combined 35 of 44 (79.5%) in his last two games, but he has a history of faltering in big moments. The senior has been much more consistent this season, save for an ugly opening weekend at Northwestern when no one on Stanford’s roster looked good. If good Hogan shows up, Iowa will have its hands full.

X-factor: The return teams

We talk nonstop about McCaffrey’s return ability—and rightfully so, because he’s very good at it—but don’t forget about Iowa’s King, who averages 25.6 yards per kick return. King hasn’t scored on a return yet (he runs back punts, too), and therefore, he’s due.

Statistically speaking

20th: Stanford has been known for its defense the last few seasons, but give this edge to Iowa. The Hawkeyes rank 20th in the total defense (allowing 334.2 yards per game) and 11th in rush defense (114.9). That means they’re equipped to bottle up McCaffrey. And if the Cardinal can’t get him going, they could be in trouble. In an age of high-scoring and high-flying football, Iowa has held opponents to 17 points or less seven different times this season.

Final analysis

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The Hawkeyes’ run this season has been admirable, and Iowa fans are sure to show up in droves to celebrate. But Stanford has been here before—fifth-year Cardinal coach David Shaw led the team to a Rose Bowl win in 2013—and its offense is rolling lately behind McCaffrey and Hogan. In their last two games, the Cardinal gritted out a nail-biter over Notre Dame and then crushed USC 41–22. Stanford ranks third nationally in third- and fourth-down conversion rate. Expect Hogan to be the difference on Jan. 1.

The pick: Stanford 20, Iowa 9

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