Bowl season's "Granddaddy of Them All" gets a fittingly old-school matchup for its 102nd installment.
"I don't know if 'even' is the word, but I think 'comparable' is a good word," Stanford head coach David Shaw said at Tuesday's Rose Bowl media day in Los Angeles. "Physical and efficient, that's what both offenses are.
"Defensively, you have two efficient and physical defenses," Shaw continued. "I'm excited because I think this is going to be a really, really good, tight, close game that somebody's going to have to win at the end."
The Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual: Stanford vs. Iowa (Pasadena, Calif.)
Kickoff: 5 p.m. ET (Friday)
Spread: Stanford -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Run-Game Familiarity
Stanford's approach stands out in the Wild West atmosphere of the Pac-12. Huddling before lining up in a pro-set formation on offense while building off an imposing defense makes the Cardinal an outlier among its conference brethren. But in the Big Ten, Stanford would be right at home.
"It looks pretty similar [to what Iowa sees in conference play], running power and things like that," Hawkeyes defensive lineman Drew Ott said. "We can relate to it, coming from Iowa. We go against our offense every day in practice, and it's similar."
There's no question both teams want to establish their offenses off the run first, and to that end, they average similar per-carry yields. Stanford's is 5.08 to Iowa's 4.71.
Both offenses also employ multifaceted looks to get their run game going. Any one of Jordan Canzeri, LeShun Daniels or Akrum Wadley can shoulder the load for the Hawkeyes, and even quarterback C.J. Beathard can get in on the act – much as Stanford's Kevin Hogan supports the Cardinal rushing attack.
Defenders from each squad praised the offensive lines. Ott said Stanford's "does a great job," while Stanford linebacker Blake Martinez referred to Iowa's as "a well-oiled machine." Those imposing fronts set the tone.
But the difference is Stanford Heisman finalist Christian McCaffrey. The do-everything sophomore gives Stanford a unique look out of the backfield not typically associated with power offenses.
Iowa defensive back Jordan Lomax said the Stanford backfield facilitates explosive, trick plays, such as the halfback pass McCaffrey threw to Hogan in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
In a showdown of similarly constructed offenses, a pinch of variety could be the difference-maker.
2. Takeaways Mean Victory
Stanford lost two games on the season. Not coincidentally, both losses came in contests wherein the Cardinal finished minus-2 in turnover margin.
Iowa finished the regular season ranked in the top 10 nationally in turnover margin, but the Hawkeyes concluded one game at minus-two – its sole loss. Michigan State, a team to which Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz compared Stanford, gained three takeaways in the Spartans' Big Ten Conference Championship Game defeat of the Hawkeyes.
Ball control will play a significant role in the Rose Bowl's outcome. Iowa is among the nation's best in generating takeaways, particularly interceptions. All-American defensive back Desmond King grabbed eight, tied for second most in the nation.
Iowa's ability to stymie the Stanford run game and pressure Hogan gives the Hawkeyes their best hope for dictating the pace.
3. Special Moments on Special Teams
Iowa and Stanford both won dramatic decisions on last-second field goals from kickers Marshall Koehn and Conrad Ukropina. Koehn's boot elevated Iowa past Pittsburgh in a game Lomax credited as a major building block in the Hawkeyes' season, while Ukropina drilled the game-winner to defeat Notre Dame in the regular-season finale.
If Shaw's prediction comes to pass, and the Rose Bowl is decided at the end, Koehn or Ukropina could again have final say.
However, in a game likely to be dictated by defense and yards coming at a premium, specials teams could also have vital importance in providing needed offense.
King ranks 15th nationally with a punt return average of 12.7 yards per opportunity. McCaffrey has proven his explosiveness on kickoffs, running one back against Cal in November. He nearly took a punt return to the house in the Pac-12 Championship Game, which would have given him a score through five different means on the year: rush, reception, pass, kick return and punt return.
It's only been accomplished twice in college football history. Once was by 2005 Heisman winner Reggie Bush, and McCaffrey just happens to wear No. 5 because of Bush. A punt return for a score in the Rose Bowl Game would be quite the exclamation point to a remarkable season.
Iowa's been doubted and overlooked much of the season. Just reaching the Rose Bowl, the first of Ferentz' career, is a remarkable and surprising milestone, but the Hawkeyes aren't in California for a participation ribbon. Iowa will bring the same fight that produced the first 12-win campaign in program history.
Stanford's familiarity with the Rose Bowl – this being the third for the program's seniors – and the Cardinal's versatile roster, should give them the edge.
Stanford can match Iowa's physicality, but has enough of a Pac-12-inspired finesse quality to break a huge play at the most opportune time. Just such a play should tip the Rose Bowl in the Cardinal's favor.