Outback Bowl 2014: Does Iowa Have Enough on D to Handle LSU's Anthony Jennings?

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Outback Bowl 2014: Does Iowa Have Enough on D to Handle LSU's Anthony Jennings?
Matthew Holst/Getty Images

Iowa faces an interesting challenge heading into the Outback Bowl against LSU. It really doesn't know what the Tigers are going to come out with on offense and that means a tricky prep for the New Year's Day clash. 

Thanks to a season-ending injury to LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger, Cam Cameron must now turn to freshman Anthony Jennings. 

Jennings led a miraculous comeback against Arkansas, but what was put on film in that game may look nothing like the version of the LSU offense that is seen in Tampa Bay on Wednesday.

That's because Jennings isn't a statuesque quarterback like Mettenberger

With a full set of practices to concentrate the offense around the skill set of Jennings, could we see a more run-orientated, spread attack from the Tigers?

Or will LSU turn to its star running back, Jeremy Hill, who ran for over 1,200 yards and earned first-team All-SEC honors?

The lack of knowledge about exactly what LSU will look like on offense is something Kirk Ferentz readily acknowledged earlier this month to the Hawkeyes' official website.

The only wild card for us is we don't have much tape on him. The job of any quarterback, regardless of his style or of his age, is to move the team, and he moved them in about as extreme circumstances as you could dream up. For him to move from an incoming freshman to the No. 2 guy the way he did says a lot about the people who have seen him on a day-to-day basis. We can count on a really good player being back there.

There's no doubt that Jennings poses an interesting mix of arm and athleticism—completing 6-of-10 passes for 99 yards and a touchdown, while also rushing 14 times for 49 yards and a touchdown in the win over Arkansas. 

However, LSU will be facing one of the Big Ten's best defenses. The Hawkeyes had one member of the first- and second-team All-Big Ten (media) and three players make second-team All-Big Ten (coaches) at the end of the year.

Statistically speaking, the Iowa defense could be up to the task against anything LSU throws or runs at them: 

Iowa Defensive Stats
Category Average Big Ten Rank
Scoring 18.8 3rd
Total 303.2 3rd
Rushing 120.8 4th
Passing 182.4 2nd

bigten.org

The highlight of the Hawkeyes defense is the senior trio at linebacker—Anthony Hitchens, Christian Kirksey and James Morris. 

LSU head coach Les Miles came away impressed by the group, according to Andrew Logue of the Des Moines Register

I think they play the scheme as well as I’ve seen it played. It’s a traditional scheme, but there’s nothing traditional about the way they play it. Their technique is excellent. They’re always in position. They’re physical and fast and they know how to take on blocks.

Combined, the trio tallied 297 tackles this season, with Hitchens' 102 tackles leading the way. They also combined for 31.5 tackles for loss.

However talented this group is, a peak behind the really good numbers provides a glimpse as to why Hawkeyes fans should be apprehensive about its defense against LSU. 

In all four losses this season, there was a common denominator—Iowa struggled against the run.

Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

The Hawkeyes gave up an average of 197.3 yards per game to Northern Illinois, Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin. Three of those teams (Northern Illinois, OSU and Wisconsin) rank in the top 10 nationally in rushing. 

Furthermore, the top two Big Ten rushing teams, Ohio State and Wisconsin, ran over the Hawkeyes to the tune of 273 and 218 yards respectively.

That's not good news for the Hawkeyes, who are going up against an LSU offense that comes into the game averaging just over 200 yards per game as a team, ranking 32nd nationally themselves. 

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Iowa's best way to counteract LSU's potent rushing attack and freshman quarterback could be in forcing Jennings into quick decisions that end badly—a.k.a. turnovers. 

LSU has coughed up the ball 18 times, putting the Tigers in a tie for 11th in turnover margin in the SEC. On the other hand, Iowa has forced opponents into 20 turnovers—including 12 interceptions. 

That leads to the front seven needing to get major pressure on Jennings, and that means a big role for Morris on Wednesday.

Morris has been the heart and soul of the Hawkeyes defense, not just from a leadership perspective, but also statistically speaking, too—he's second on the team in tackles with 97, but he leads the Hawkeyes in tackles for loss (14.5), sacks (5) and interceptions (4). 

In order for the Hawkeyes to take down the Tigers in the Outback Bowl, Morris and the rest of the senior-laden front seven need to play better than they have in the first four games against good opposition. 

Without knowing exactly what LSU will look like on offense with Jennings at quarterback, it's up to the experience of Iowa's defense to make up for what is currently unknown.

As long as the group continues to play within its roles, the defense will give Iowa a chance to pull off the upset. 

 

Andy Coppens is Bleacher Report's lead writer for the Big Ten. You can follow him on Twitter: @ andycoppens.

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