Orange Bowl Preview: It's Adapt or Die for the Iowa Hawkeyes

Bryan KellySenior Analyst IDecember 6, 2009

COLUMBUS, OH - NOVEMBER 14:  Defensive tackle Doug Worthington #84 of the Ohio State Buckeyes chases down running back Adam Robinson #32 of the Iowa Hawkeyes at Ohio Stadium on November 14, 2009 in Columbus, Ohio.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Back in October, my Wolverines were on their second road trip of the year, facing Iowa in Kinnick Stadium.

They were enjoying mild success against the Hawkeyes, particularly in the running game, and I recall attributing that success to Iowa's refusal to provide safety help against the rush.

Despite the fact that the avowed goal of the Rodriguez spread n' shred system is to run the ball every time the numbers in the box favor it, Iowa refused even to walk up their safeties to the line of scrimmage and assist in run support—instead remaining in a deep-drop cover-two for most of the game.

I suppose they didn't want to get beat deep by Tate Forcier when that was, you know, still a possibility.

Defensive coordinator Norm Parker won't be as hesitant to move his safeties up in run support against the Georgia Tech triple option—a system that, even more than the Rodriguez spread n' shred, favors running to the pass. At least, I hope he won't be.

Relying on his defense to be reactive rather than aggressive is almost certainly the recipe for an Orange Bowl massacre in favor of the Yellow Jackets.

After all, the only success teams have had in dismantling the triple option is in attacking it aggressively.

LSU jumped on the Jackets early in last year's Chick-Fil-A bowl, taking the opening drive for a touchdown and knocking Josh Nesbitt out of the game early to destroy any momentum GT had coming in.

For the Miami Hurricanes, that meant overcoming downfield blocks with anticipatory quickness and shucking them off before they occurred, something Miami was able to do because of its youth and speed on defense.

In the ACC championship game, Clemson provided yet another blueprint: blitz the A gap—the area in between the center and the guard—and disrupt the read of quarterback Josh Nesbitt on the handoff for the fullback dive by laying a hand on him early.

By the end of the game, this blitz was highly successful in getting to Nesbitt and putting the Yellow Jackets in less favorable down-and-distances, allowing Clemson to nearly stage the comeback.

Were it not for the heroics of WR Demaryius Thomas, who broke a tackle and plumb outran a Clemson safety to score a late touchdown, the Tigers probably win the rematch and are the ones representing the ACC in the Orange Bowl.

Look at the characteristic that unites all three of these examples—aggression, ferocity, setting the tone. That's what makes this Orange Bowl matchup most intriguing to me: these two programs couldn't be more different in their approach to playing football.

Both on offense and defense, Iowa is extremely methodical. They rarely blitz, remain gap-sound in the running game and zone-sound on passing downs, keep their safeties back and their plays simple, and wait for the other team to make a mistake.

On offense, they run, and then they run, and then they pass, and if they don't have to punt, they run again.

Paul Johnson's approach, on the other hand, is to set the tone immediately. The triple option defines all, dominates all—time of possession, the line of scrimmage, and the very physicality of the game. The defense has to be retaught how to play.

It is designed to be adapted to by defenses so that various counters can then be executed. In other words, for defenses that begin to overpursue on the outside option pitch, the triple-option system punishes them by repeatedly handing off to the fullback up the middle (who also happens to be All-ACC running back Jonathon Dwyer) for gashing yards.

Then, when teams attempt to take away the fullback dive by clogging the middle, there are tosses to the outside and counters that can be lethal.

And there's always the plain old downfield pass—Demaryius Thomas leads the ACC in reception yards despite playing in a pass-hostile system and is second in the nation in YPC.

In short, the worst thing a team can do against the triple option is to just sit there and let it play out, which might be exactly what Iowa does defensively.

In Iowa's defense, they will field the best defensive line and the finest tacklers Georgia Tech will have faced all year. We saw the effect an outstanding defensive line can have on the outcome of a game in the Big 12 Championship—Nebraska nearly pulled out the victory despite no offense to speak of because of the Heisman-worthy play of DT Ndamukong Suh.

Adrian Clayborn, Broderick Binns, and Karl Klug might be good enough to disrupt the Georgia Tech O-line by themselves. Doing that would elevate the Hawkeye approach from "reactive" to "aggressive" without calling for a blitz.

But don't bet on it. The Yellow Jackets are too well-coached on the line and will have too many opportunities to let a little pressure disrupt their system. Only extra aggressiveness can reliably complicate the system.

Worst of all, the Jackets are not the kind of team that will ever shoot themselves in the foot. Without a turnover in their favor, there's no way the Hawkeyes can keep up merely by reacting and waiting for a break.

So for Iowa to survive the test in Miami, they need to adapt to the Paul Johnson system, anticipate it, beat it to the spot, fight it, throttle it...or die a long, slow, grinding, grisly death.

I'd walk those safeties up, Norm, if I were you.

Georgia Tech 30, Iowa 18