Iowa (7-5) and Oklahoma (9-3) are both limping into their Insight Bowl showdown today in Tempe, Arizona. The Hawkeyes suspended their top two running backs, a flu bug seems to have struck right tackle Markus Zusevics, back-up safety Colin Sleeper was allegedly sent home for disciplinary reasons, and All-Big Ten corner Shaun Prater may or may not have been in the hospital. Yeesh.
And the Sooners aren’t any better off. Oklahoma will be missing two of its top three receivers to injury, including early Biletnikoff candidate Ryan Broyles. Since Broyles’ injury in early November, QB Landry Jones has contributed a whopping zero touchdowns and seven turnovers. Oklahoma will also be without its top three running backs, including top rusher Dominique Whalen after a season-ending ankle injury. And numerous transfers on the offensive side of the ball have raised questions about the team’s mindset going into the game today.
Kirk Ferentz traditionally does an excellent job of preparing his team for bowl games — the Hawks have won three in a row — despite swirling adversity and seemingly great odds, at least according to Vegas bookies. The Hawkeyes will need positive responses to these five questions if they are going to beat the heavily favored Sooners:
1) Who will step up at running back? It’s deja vu for Iowa in the desert as suspensions have left questions on offense and specifically a wide hole in the running game. A year after filling that void himself in the Insight Bowl after Adam Robinson’s suspension, Marcus Coker, the sterling power rusher and alleged off-field scholar, was shockingly suspended for a violation of the student-athlete code of conduct. His back-up, Mika’il McCall, who many fans believe has a higher ceiling than Coker, did not make the trip to Tempe after an indefinite suspension in November, and he may transfer.
That leaves four options for Iowa — senior walk-on Jason White, redshirt freshman DeAndre Johnson, and two true freshmen, Damon Bullock and Jordan Canzeri. Out of that foursome, I believe Canzeri has the best chance to shine. The diminutive Jersey native had committed to Villanova until a late scholarship offer from Ferentz, who said he was not going to let Canzeri’s lack of size affect how amazing the cutting speedster looked on tape. Canzeri may be slight (172 pounds soaking wet), but he’s blazing fast and has great vision for a young back. He seems to fit the Iowa mold of a lightly recruited, under-the-radar talent with a chip on his shoulder. Practice photos have also shown Canzeri getting first-team reps. But can he hold onto the ball? Fumbling is always a concern for young unproven players, and this may prompt Ferentz to start the less talented but steady White, the 2011 version of Paki O’Meara.
2) How will the Iowa defense respond to Oklahoma’s quick-strike offense in Norm Parker’s final game? The defense will undoubtedly play with emotion as Parker finally calls it quits amid growing age and rampant diabetes. The Insight Bowl will be the salty veteran’s final game, perhaps before another Parker — Phil — takes over the defensive mantle. The added motivation will be necessary to resuscitate an Iowa defense that has played as inconsistently as any Hawkeye defense in recent memory, and to stifle an Oklahoma offense that is one of the most dangerous in the nation.
The black-and-gold shirts gave up just over 23 points a game to finish 43rd in the country, which isn’t awful, but the statistics don’t show just how much bending the Iowa defense did in 2011 and how much difficulty they had getting off the field on 3rd down situations. Opponents converted long 3rd down after long 3rd down all year, and the usually vaunted run defense was easily breakable in physical games against Penn State and Nebraska, when those aforementioned teams would run the ball exclusively on some drives in “see if you can stop us” moments. Iowa wasn’t able to.
Oklahoma won’t have much of a running threat tonight, but they will pass early and often, just as Blaine Gabbert did for Missouri in last year’s game. Jones will get his yards and convert his share of third downs, as every pass-heavy team does against the Hawks, but like the 2010 Insight Bowl, it’s not about how many yards Iowa gives up, but how many points. We’ll see if Norm can bring some well-timed blitzes and goal-line grit today.
3) Will Ferentz pull out surprises to stump former Hawkeye Stoops, as he has in past bowl games? It seems as if the added preparation and singularity of bowl games compels Kirk to spice up the conservative play-calling and take chances he otherwise would not in the regular season. I’m not entirely sure why he waits until December or January to start taking calculated risks, because it seems as if those calculations yield the safe response during the regular season. I often find myself asking, after a bowl game, why Ferentz hadn’t coached with such gusto during the regular season, and that if he had, the Hawkeyes wouldn’t be playing in a lower tier bowl.
This strange philosophy was on display in last season’s game, when Parker dialed up more blitzes than he had all season and Ken O’Keefe even called a play-action on 3rd-and-1, something fans have begged for since the dawn of time. To outside observers, those kinds of play-calls may seem routine and ordinary, but to Hawkeye fans who never get to witness something more exotic than an end-around, these kinds of courageous calls are cause for excitement.
To beat a team like Oklahoma, who has more talent across the board, Iowa will have to unleash some surprises. I’m predicting the return of the shotgun formation no-huddle offense. Kirk usually doesn’t try to beat his opponents at their own game, but without the consistent or proven threat of a running game, he will have to find unique ways to score tonight, as he did earlier in the season when situations called for it (see: Pittsburgh). Look for the no-huddle, five-wideout sets to make a valiant comeback. It sure worked for Oklahoma State.
4) Can James Vandenberg play well away from Kinnick Stadium? This is an odd one. Vandenberg compiled amazing statistics in 2011 and showed an ability to make any necessary throw on the field with his impressive arm strength. But he looked like an entirely different quarterback on the road, displaying wild inaccuracy and a lack of pocket presence in clutch situations. It was quite the shift from his heroic performance as a redshirt freshman at Ohio State’s famed “Horseshoe.” Vandenberg led Iowa to a combined 86 points versus Northwestern and Indiana, and 10 on the road at Penn State and Nebraska. In those two games, he threw zero touchdowns, three interceptions, and completed less than 50 percent of his passes. Sure, the competition was stingier, but Vandenberg put up similarly ho-hum numbers at lowly Minnesota.
The lack of clutch acumen, or ability to make plays in tight end-of-game scenarios, seemed almost exclusive to road contests. The 21-point fourth quarter comeback versus Pittsburgh seemed more like an aberration against a middling Big East team than a sign of things to come. The Insight Bowl won’t be a traditional road environment, as Hawkeye fans should outnumber the Sooners. But while Vandenberg has proven he can put up big numbers when relying on Marvin McNutt, the Big Ten’s Wide Receiver of the Year, he hasn’t proven he can make the clutch, winning plays away from Kinnick.
5) And finally, my prediction? Iowa wins, 31-24, in a game similar to last year’s. The announcers will inevitably focus on the off-field drama and the well-tread relationship between Ferentz and Stoops. But the Hawkeyes will do what they’ve always done in bowl games under Ferentz — unheralded players will step to the occasion, Iowa will score points on Oklahoma’s wounded, Big 12-certified defense, and Iowa’s defenders, though they won’t always look pretty, will make just enough timely plays to help the black and gold pull out a record fourth straight bowl win.