LOS ANGELES – After 13 games, it seems pretty obvious that defenses can’t stop Christian McCaffrey. They only hope is to contain him.
And by contain, I mean not letting the multi-talented Stanford running back do what he did against Southern California in the Pac-12 Championship game.
McCaffery shredded USC’s defense for 461 yards in the Cardinal’s 41-22 victory.
He rushed for 207 yards against the Trojans and averaged 6.5 yards per carry against a defense that yielded just 3.8 yards per carry this season. He caught four passes for 105 yards. He scored two touchdowns. And he threw a touchdown pass and returned kicks.
A similar performance against Iowa in the Rose Bowl likely would pave the way for a Stanford victory.
McCaffrey’s yardage total against USC in the Pac-12 title game was more than the Iowa offense has generated in seven games this season.
“What he does as a runner I think that will maybe be neutralized,” said former Iowa defensive lineman Anthony Herron, who now works as a studio host for the Pac-12 Network. “But what McCaffery does out of the backfield as a receiver, I think that’s the X-factor.”
I couldn’t agree more.
In fact, that’s been my biggest concern for the Iowa defense since this Rose Bowl matchup was announced.
What makes defending the 6-foot, 201-pound McCaffery so difficult is that he touches the ball so often and can beat defenses as a runner, receiver and return specialist. Stop him as a runner and he might burn you by catching passes out of the backfield or with a long return.
Herron is familiar with Iowa’s defensive philosophies after having played his last two seasons for the Hawkeyes in 1999 and 2000 under current head coach Kirk Ferentz.
The late Norm Parker, who died on Jan. 13, 2014, was Iowa’s defensive coordinator during Herron’s last two seasons as a Hawkeye. Phil Parker (no relation) has held the position since 2012 and his approach is similar to Norm Parker’s style of defense.
Norm Parker wasn’t afraid to leave his linebackers isolated on running backs coming of the backfield, nor is Phil Parker.
“If you watch the Iowa defense closely over the years, they don’t mind leaving the linebackers isolated on a running back out of the backfield, on a receiver out of the slot,” Herron said. “There are more adjustments with the defense now under Phil than there were for a lot of years under Norm. I went through that myself as well.
“But they will leave linebackers isolated. They’ve had a couple weeks to prepare for how the multiple sets of Stanford will try to exploit that.”
Probably the best and safest way to defend McCaffrey, who finished runner-up for the Heisman Trophy this season, is to keep him on the sideline watching. It’ll be up to the Iowa offense to make that happen, especially the rushing attack.
Look for both teams to try to establish the run early in order to control time of possession and set up play action passes.
Iowa enters the Rose Bowl averaging 192.0 rushing yards per game, while limiting opponents to just 114.9 rushing yards per game.
The Hawkeyes will be tough to beat if they come close to rushing for 200 yards because that likely would leave McCaffrey on the sideline for long stretches.
Stanford’s defense is suspect against the run as Notre Dame showed by rushing for 299 yards on 35 carries. The Cardinal still prevailed against the Irish 38-36 thanks largely to the performance of senior quarterback Kevin Hogan, who threw four touchdown passes.
It’s just hard to envision this Iowa team losing a game in which it has a productive rushing attack. All four of Iowa’s running backs are healthy and have had nearly a month to prepare for Stanford’s defense.
Iowa’s running backs also share a mutual respect for each other.
“Come game time, we’re always pulling for each other to do well,” said junior running back LeShun Daniels. “I think that’s what really helped us be successful because we know when it comes game time, whoever is out there making plays, we believe in them and we’re going to be behind them 100 percent.”
My belief in Iowa’s rushing attack is largely why I have the Hawkeyes prevailing on Friday. McCaffery will have moments where he shines, but not enough for Stanford to get over hump.
Prediction: Iowa 28, Stanford 27