-by Braden Gall (follow at @BradenGall)
Oklahoma (9-3) vs. Iowa (7-5)
Date: Dec. 30 at 10 p.m. ET
Location: Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Ariz.
The 23rd annual Insight Bowl will feature two teams that limped into the postseason. Iowa lost three of its last five, including the season finale against new rival Nebraska. However, the Hawkeyes own a three-game bowl winning streak after a win in this game over Missouri 27-24 last season.
Oklahoma, the preseason No. 1 team in the nation, rolled through the first six weeks of the season unblemished before dropping three of its last six and two of its last three. An embarrassing 44-10 loss at the hands of rival Oklahoma State to cap the season further illustrated how far the Sooners have fallen. Like Iowa, however, the Crimson and Cream are riding a mini two-game bowl winning streak, including a dominating 48-20 Fiesta Bowl win over UConn last year.
WHEN IOWA HAS THE BALL:
Bob Stoops’ defense has struggled to stop anything in the second half of the season, and his beleaguered unit will be tested by Kirk Ferentz’ offensive triplets. Quarterback James Vandenberg played efficient football in his first season as the starter, finishing with 26 total touchdowns and only six interceptions. Wide receiver Marvin McNutt produced one of the great receiving campaigns in Iowa history and now holds nearly every major school receiving record. He caught 78 passes for 1,269 yards — which included eight 100-yard efforts — and 12 touchdowns.
Running back Marcus Coker was expected to be the focal point of the offense for this bowl, but he was suspended due to a violation of team rules. He led the Big Ten in rushing attempts (281) and finished second in the league in rushing (115.3 ypg). Unfortunately though, somehow Iowa finished last in the league in rushing as Coker accounted for 80.7% of Iowa’s rushing offense this fall. Without Coker, it's anybody's guess who the Hawkeyes will turn to at running back. Freshmen Jordan Canzeri and DeAndre Johnson figure to get a bulk of carries, but don't count out junior Jason White.
The Hawkeye offensive line will be the key to success in Tempe. They couldn’t get a consistent push in the ground game all season and finished 74th in the nation in sacks allowed (2.2 sacks per game). Protecting Vandenberg and clearing space for one of the inexperienced backs will be the only way Iowa tops Oklahoma.
The good news for Ferentz has been the play of Oklahoma on defense of late. The Sooners defensive woes started on October 22 when they inexplicably lost to Texas Tech 41-38 at home. Before that game Oklahoma was allowing 116 yards rushing per game, 201 yards passing per game and only 15.8 points per game. They were leading the Big 12 in total and scoring defense. Since the loss to the Red Raiders, Oklahoma has allowed nearly 30 points per game, 286 yards passing and 163 yards rushing per game. They finished the year 3-3 in the final six and are nowhere near the BCS national title game.
WHEN OKLAHOMA HAS THE BALL:
This was going to be a rebuilding year for Iowa on defense and it showed. They allowed 44 in a loss to Iowa State, 31 in a win over Northwestern, 37 in a loss to Michigan State and 22 in a loss to Minnesota. It certainly wasn’t a vintage Ferentz defense as Iowa finished last in the league in pass defense and no better than seventh in rushing, scoring, total and pass efficiency defense.
This means that Landry Jones and the Sooners offense — still sans Ryan Broyles — should be able to get back on track. The third-year starter at quarterback threw for 4,302 yards and 28 touchdowns this season. However, he managed only 506 yards, no touchdowns and four interceptions over the final two weeks. The loss of Broyles has had a marked impact on the OU offense and it will fall to Kenny Stills, DeJuan Miller and a host of talented skill players to play better if the Sooners expect to win.
The football will certainly get passed around the offense. Aside from a receiving corps that is trying to find its stride after losing the most prolific receiver in NCAA history, running backs Roy Finch and Brennan Clay should all expect to see time in the backfield. This group has been trying to make up for the loss of Dominique Whaley — who had 627 yards and nine scores through the first six weeks of the season before being lost for the year to injury. Freshman Brandon Williams is also out, after transferring to Texas A&M.
Jones had plenty of talent to work with, both in the backfield and on the edge, so there is no reason why names like Stills and Finch cannot become dependable options in Sun Devil Stadium.
Oklahoma’s freshman kicker Mike Hunnicutt connected on 20-of-23 field goal attempts, including his last nine. Iowa’s Michael Meyer began the season by making 11-of-13 field goal tries before missing five of his last seven. Neither team should have a distinct advantage in the third phase of the game as both have been uninspiringly dependable in the punting game and both have struggled in the return game.
Even without Broyles and Whaley, this Oklahoma offense possesses enough firepower to score plenty of points on the Hawks. Will Vandenberg and the Iowa offense be able to take advantage of a besieged Sooner defense remains to be seen. If so, Iowa will keep this game close and make Stoops work for his third straight bowl win. If the Black and Old Gold offensive line fails to stand up to Frank Alexander and company, it could be a long day for Iowa fans.
Oklahoma 34, Iowa 24