Breaking down Iowa (10-2) vs. Georgia Tech (11-2), Jan. 5, 8 p.m. ET, Fox
1. It's strength vs. strength. There's no doubt what the key matchup will be in this one, as Kirk Ferentz's physical defensive front faces the orchestrated chaos of Paul Johnson's triple-option.
The Yellow Jackets average 307.2 rushing yards, second nationally, behind B-back Jonathan Dwyer (1,346 yards and 14 touchdowns), quarterback Josh Nesbitt (who sits nine yards from 1,000) and A-back Anthony Allen (9.8 yards per carry), but their running game isn't flawless.
Tech's rushing attack has struggled in two areas: against defenses with strong interiors (Miami and Georgia this season, LSU in last year's Chick-fil-A Bowl) and against those with time to prepare (1-3 against BCS conference teams who had at least 10 days to prepare).
Iowa has exactly what causes Tech fits. It's strong on the line, where tackles Christian Ballard and Karl Klug can bust up the dive play that is Dwyer's bread-and-butter; it can take away the outside lanes behind all-Big Ten ends Broderick Binns and Adrian Clayborn; and it has had plenty of lead-in time to dissect the Jackets offense. However, this will be the first top 10 rushing team Iowa has faced, and though the Hawkeyes allowed 112 rush yards per game this year, they did struggle in their last game against a power running team, giving up 229 yards to Ohio State.
2. Ricky Stanzi returns for the Hawkeyes. Iowa's offensive attack was never intimidating, ranking 93rd in total offense and scoring 23 points per game, but it was gritty and resilient. Stanzi epitomized those qualities, throwing 14 interceptions, but also leading Iowa to eight come-from-behind wins.
Without Stanzi, who missed two-and-a-half games with a severely sprained right ankle that required surgery, Iowa was knocked out of the national title and Rose Bowl hunt. Now, he'll look to recapture the magic against a Jackets defense that ranked 85th in pass efficiency defense and has allowed 21 passing touchdowns.
He's sure to be a little rusty. He's also sure to be tested by ACC Defensive Player of the Year Derrick Morgan (18 tackles for loss) and a Tech front that will be focused on bottling up the run after allowing 323 and 339 yards in its last two outings.
3. Keep an eye on Demaryius Thomas ... Iowa certainly will. The attention Georgia Tech's running game generates results in one-on-one matchups on the perimeter. On those rare occasions when the Jackets pass (their 12.2 attempts per game are third-fewest in the FBS), the big-bodied Thomas has taken full advantage.
The redshirt junior, who accounted for 60 percent of the Jackets' receptions, averaged 25.1 yards per catch and hauled in 46 balls for 1,154 yards and eight touchdowns. Though Tech can rely on him too often at times -- like against Georgia, when the Jackets called an unheard of four straight pass plays -- his game-changing ability and mix of size, speed and strength has made an impression on the Hawkeyes.
"Basically all you have out there is a corner out there one-on-one with him and the guy is 6-foot-3, 230," said Iowa defensive coordinator Norm Parker. "He sort of slaps the corner away and runs for a touchdown."
The Jackets' X-factor will face the best group of defensive backs he's seen this year, led by two All-Big Ten selections in safety Tyler Sash (six interceptions and 12 passes defended) and corner Amari Spievey (eight pass break-ups).
How do teams prepare for Georgia Tech's triple-option? I asked Jacksonville State defensive coordinator Greg Stewart, who faced the offense this season and when he coached Georgia Southern. Here's what he had to say:
"Their fullback [Dwyer] is unbelievable and the coach has been doing it forever, so he knows all the tricks of the trade and they're very impressive.
"You have to try and stop the fullback [Dwyer]. They want to be in second-and-four, second-and-five, the whole game. You want to put them in third-and-seven or more. You want to keep making them do what they don't want to do. You have to put as many as possible on the fullback and stand him up.
"[With Thomas] you have to keep one underneath and one on top of him. Then you have to try and stop the triple option. A lot of people play him man-to-man, but that doesn't work."
Georgia Tech 28, Iowa 20. The key here is how well Iowa responds to Georgia Tech's offense. It may be able to contend with Dwyer, Nesbitt and the relentless cut blocks and keep Thomas under wraps for a while, but the Jackets won't divert from their game plan. To a man, the Jackets fully believe that if they run properly, their offense can't be stopped. Eventually they're going to break one or two or three runs, and it may be asking too much for Stanzi to lead the Hawkeyes with more urgency and consistency than he's shown all season.
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