Iowa gears up to stop Stanford’s McCaffrey
LOS ANGELES – Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey did nearly everything it’s possible to do with a football in his hands this season, dropping jaws and breaking long-standing NCAA records along the way.
With a big performance in the Rose Bowl on Friday, he might even become famous in Iowa City.
“I hadn’t heard too much about him,” Iowa linebacker Cole Fisher said of McCaffrey. “I didn’t follow him (before) the Heisman race too much. That was probably the first time I heard about him.”
Fisher can be excused for missing those late-starting Pac-12 games. After all, many Heisman Trophy voters undoubtedly did the same during McCaffrey’s incredible sophomore season, which concludes with his debut in the Granddaddy of Them All.
The Hawkeyes (12-1) are up to speed on the challenge posed by Stanford’s do-it-all back with speed, instinct, a throwing arm and an uncanny knack for turning almost anything into a positive gain. Even after a season spent largely shutting down the best run games in the Big Ten, the Hawkeyes’ defense hasn’t faced anybody as daunting as McCaffrey.
“You’ve got to make sure you know where he’s at, (because) he’s at the quarterback, he’s at wide receiver, they put him in the backfield,” Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker said. “It’s going to be hard. It’s going to be a good competition for us.”
Although Alabama’s Derrick Henry won the Heisman, McCaffrey won The Associated Press’ player of the year award last week – and his accomplishments are stunning by any measure.
McCaffrey ran for 1,847 yards, led Stanford (11-2) with 41 receptions for 540 yards and returned kicks while setting the NCAA record for all-purpose yards. Most recently, he turned in a 461-yard performance against Southern California in the Pac-12 title game.
Stanford offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren knows which award voters make sense to him.
“We think (the Heisman voters) got it wrong,” Bloomgren said. “We think the AP got it right. I texted him as soon as the AP (award) came out, and I was like, ‘Well, at least we’ve got one of those things right.’ He fired back with: ‘I guess AP stands for “all purpose,” because at least they like my all-purpose yards.'”
After a few weeks of watching McCaffrey on film, Parker seems inclined to agree with the AP voters.
“People bounce off him,” Parker said. “You see guys hitting him, and he doesn’t go down. You’d better be able to wrap him up, and we’ve got to do a better job of that.”
Yet Parker believes his defense is capable of challenging McCaffrey and his imposing offensive line. The Cardinal scored 37.2 points per game and dominated time of possession all season long.
“It’s going to take all 11 people on defense running to the ball,” Iowa defensive back Jordan Lomax said. “(McCaffrey) is a great back. It’s going to start with our D-line up front to get after their offensive line. Their offensive line is built just like our offense. It’s going to come down to who dominates the run game.”
Iowa’s defense is a study in simplicity, according to coaches and players on both sides of the matchup.
Although the Hawkeyes present few of the gimmicky fronts and unorthodox blitzes encountered in the Pac-12 and elsewhere, their fundamental toughness – particularly against the run game – is a daunting obstacle for Stanford. Iowa also has been remarkably good at limiting big plays, yielding only 12 gains of 30 yards or more.
“They don’t do a whole lot, but they’re extremely good at what they do, and it works for them,” McCaffrey said.
Parker takes some comfort in the strong similarities between his defensive scheme and the tough Northwestern defense that stifled Stanford in its inexplicable season-opening loss – yet the Cardinal already learned from that experience.
“It doesn’t look like the same team now,” Parker said.
In practice, 5-foot-9 scout-team freshman Eric Graham is playing the role of McCaffrey for the Iowa defense. The Hawkeyes will take their best shot at McCaffrey, but they also hope to limit three-time Rose Bowl starting quarterback Kevin Hogan’s connections with his receivers.
“It’s not just about stopping (McCaffrey),” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “You have to try to contain him, but if you load up too heavy, they’ve got other ways to hurt you, and they’ve done a great job of finding those. Scoring 37 points (per game), it’s not by accident.”