This is the first in a series of in-depth articles I will be doing on the Orange Bowl. The first focuses on the matchup everyone's talking about: Georgia Tech's offense vs. Iowa's defense.
This year's Orange Bowl features two of the most contrasting styles in college football, Iowa's vanilla-but-solid defense against Georgia Tech's triple option offense. Paul Johnson's Yellow Jacket offense is one of the most unique and perfected in college football. Georgia Tech will likely end the season with two 1,000 yard rushers and the nation's second-best rushing offense.
While the triple option is tough for any team to defend, Iowa's defensive coordinator Norm Parker is among the best in the business. He employs a very vanilla, but effective "bend but don't break" defense. His defense allows an average of only 15.5 points per game, ranking 10th in the nation.
But something has to give.
Will it be the Yellow Jacket offense or the Hawkeye defense? In the new world of unique offenses, most expect the Georgia Tech offense to literally "run away" with the oranges, but let's remember that long forgotten phrase "defense wins championships."
So what is the triple option? Everyone in Iowa has heard of it and how effective it is, but how is it run? There are many versions of the offense, but Paul Johnson's may be the most unique. The quarterback rolls out and reads the defense. He has three (well really four) options: run it himself, pitch the ball to the running back, hand the ball off to Dwyer, or throw it deep.
Most option attacks, such as Navy's (Johnson's old school), are extremely run-oriented, but Georgia Tech's passing option makes it even more dangerous. Many defenses are sucked in to cover either the running back or the quarterback, leaving a wide receiver wide open downfield.
The key to stopping the Georgia Tech offense: good linebackers and a good defensive line. This is where Iowa shines.
The Hawkeyes boast one of the best defensive fronts in the nation. After losing All-Big Ten defensive tackles Mitch King and Matt Kroul, the defensive line figured to be Iowa's biggest weakness in 2009.
But instead, the unit has arguably become Iowa's best. The line is anchored by All-Big Ten defensive end Adrian Clayborn, who has made big play after big play this year for the Hawkeyes.
Inside are Karl Klug and Christian Ballard. Klug is starting for the first time this season, but has turned in an All-Big Ten caliber season. Ballard started at defensive end last season, but was moved inside to make room for sophomore end Broderick Binns. Ballard has adapted to the adjustment perfectly and it paid off as Binns has been outstanding, showing off his volleyball skills by blocking passes all season.
The linebackers are also among the best in the nation. Senior Pat Angerer was named a first-team All-American by the Football Writers Association of America and leads the Hawkeyes with 135 tackles. A.J. Edds and Jeremiah Hunter have also been key contributors, although their accomplishments are often overshadowed by Angerer.
But back to the option. What makes the offense so difficult for opposing defenses is that it makes the defenders run laterally to the ball, rather than vertically. Most teams don't have the speed to match Georgia Tech quarterback Josh Nesbitt and running back Jonathan Dwyer, but Iowa has a huge speed advantage over most defenses.
Most experts don't give Iowa a chance because they think Georgia Tech's team speed will be too much for Iowa's "slow, physical Big Ten defense." And while the Hawkeyes are physical, they are also surprisingly fast.
"We knew defensively they're as good as anybody we've played," said Arizona coach Mike Stoops after his team's 27-17 loss to Iowa. "They're bigger, they're faster than what people give them credit for."
Stoops witnessed Iowa's speed first hand and he knew what he was talking about. He watched his running back Nic Grigsby be run down from behind by the 282 pound Clayborn. Angerer also boasts tremendous speed, ranking as the fastest draft-eligible senior linebacker in the country with a 4.5 second 40-yard dash.
Most teams who don't have the speed that Iowa has are forced to pull a corner from coverage to attack the running game, leaving a receiver wide open. But the Hawkeyes' defensive front will be able to run toe to toe with the offense, allowing the corners to stay in coverage, eliminating the pass.
But Georgia Tech has stated that they plan to throw the ball early and often, even though their offense is built around the run. Yellow Jacket wide receiver Demaryius Thomas poses a significant threat, with over 1000 yards receiving this season.
But Iowa's defense is the best that he will have seen all year. The defensive backfield is extremely disciplined and won't be baited by the run. Junior corner Amari Spievey was named to numerous All-Big Ten teams and sophomore safety Tyler Sash was named an All-American by CBS Sports.
Spievey and Sash will take care of business as normal, but Iowa's biggest advantage is its "bend but don't break" style of play. Georgia Tech's passing game has lived off the big play, but Iowa rarely gives up long pass plays.
While we can keep breaking down the many ways to beat the option, Norm Parker summed it up the best when explaining how Miami beat the Yellow Jackets earlier this year.
"They got off blocks and they ran to the ball."
It's a simple formula for a complicated offense. And while beating the Georgia Tech offense is definitely a tough task, Iowa has the personnel to do it.