When the Hawkeyes have the ball
The Sooners have been devastating on defense this season, but when this unit has given away, it has completely given away.
In the Sooners' three losses, the defense allowed 1,154 passing yards, eight TD passes, no interceptions and against Oklahoma State it allowed 278 rushing yards and four rush TDs.
So, there is some possible flux in the Sooners defensive staff. Mike Stoops, fired as Arizona's coach this season, is still waiting to hitch a ride. Cross Ohio State and Nebraska off the list of possible landing places. That leads speculation to Oklahoma, where Bob Stoops, his brother, is the head coach and where Mike Stoops served as defensive coordinator before moving to Arizona eight years ago.
Problem is Bob Stoops already has a defensive coordinator in Brent Venables. So, who knows? If the carousel starts, it will be after the Insight Bowl.
Against the Hawkeyes, the Sooners will own whichever side end Frank Alexander lines up on. Alexander earned Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors after leading the league with 8.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss. OU might also have owned the other edge with Ronnell Lewis, who had 5.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss despite missing the last two-and-a-half games with an MCL sprain and class suspension.
Lewis is academically ineligible for the bowl and Bob Stoops has recommended he enter the NFL draft.
OU should be OK at DE. The Sooners have played a package that featured four defensive ends this season, with R.J. Washington and David King joining Lewis and Alexander. Washington and King have combined for five sacks.
OU's linebacker trio of Travis Lewis, Tom Wort and Corey Nelson can make plays. Lewis earned all-Big 12 while playing most of the season with a broken toe.
Oklahoma's secondary is known as the "Sharks," but it was more like tuna in losses to Texas Tech (452 yards, 4 TDs) and Baylor (479, 4 TDs). Injuries tested depth in both those games and depth didn't come through.
Of course, the big question for the Hawkeyes is who'll carry the ball?
The Hawkeyes' offense will be markedly different without running back Marcus Coker, who is suspended for this game for an unspecified violation of the UI Code of Conduct. He had 1,384 yards and 15 TDs on 280 carries. Iowa's No. 2 rusher, De'Andre Johnson, had 18 carries and 79 yards. Also, he wore a red jersey signifying no contact in practice earlier this week.
This puts quarterback James Vandenberg squarely in the spotlight. His 2,806 yards is seventh most in a season for an Iowa QB. He's also one of just four Iowa QBs to throw for 20-plus TD passes in a season. The big difference between Vandenberg's numbers and the seven other top seasons in Iowa history is completion percentage. Vandenberg is at 59.4 percent, while the others are in the 60s.
Iowa will try to run the ball. Offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe and head coach Kirk Ferentz will strive for balance, but how long will Iowa be able to stick with it if it's ineffective? The running backs likely will be walk-on senior Jason White and true freshmen Jordan Canzeri and Damon Bullock.
Will Iowa trot out the no-huddle? It could. Vandenberg clearly showed proficiency against Pitt, but OU's defense has seen spread after spread in the east-west offense of the Big 12.
Iowa won't be able to feed WR Marvin McNutt in this game. McNutt was shutdown by CB Alfonzo Dennard in Iowa's dreary 20-7 loss against Nebraska. Fleming might be a notch below Dennard, but he'll likely be locked in on McNutt, who needs eight receptions to become Iowa's career receptions leader.
Vandenberg will need to summon a consistent, four-quarter performance to give Iowa a chance.
When the Sooners have the ball
The story for the Sooners' offense is similar to the D: It was great for the most part, but was pinned in Oklahoma's losses.
Behind quarterback Landry Jones, OU finished fourth in the nation in total offense (532.1 yard per game) and that was with season-ending injuries to leading wide receiver Ryan Broyles and leading rusher Dominique Whaley. This was behind the playcalling of first-year offensive coordinator Josh Heupel, a former OU quarterback.
Jones is a talent, completing 63.1 percent of his passes for 4,302 yards, 28 TD passes and 14 interceptions. With Whaley out and the Sooners down to Roy Finch (105 carries) and Brennan Clay (3.48 yards per carry) at running back, OU will likely lean heavily on Jones, a junior who could make the lead to the NFL draft. Jones is No. 6 on ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper's "big board."
Plus, the Sooners are a 56-44 pass-run percentage. This will be Jones' deal, and Jones without Broyles has been suspect.
In the three games after Broyles’ season-ending knee injury, Jones' passer rating was just 107.68. Going into the Insight, he's 35th nationally with a 142.44 pass efficiency.
The Sooners discovered a weapon in full-sized quarterback Blake Bell. The 6-6, 245-pounder has rushed for 10 TDs this season out of a formation nicknamed "Belldozer." Basically, he runs the ball between the tackles, which, when Iowa's defense has been punctured this season, has been a problem for the Hawkeyes.
In games where physicality has mattered -- which is Iowa's calling card -- the Hawkeyes have buckled. It first showed up at Penn State, when the Nittany Lions rushed for 231 yards. Then against Michigan State, a team that was bottom tier in rushing in the Big Ten this season, the Spartans ran for 155 yards, not a huge amount but enough. Then, Nebraska was a lot like Penn State. The Cornhuskers bullied Iowa for 222 rushing yards.
Going into the Insight, Iowa has allowed 1,914 rushing yards, the most since 2,331 in 2000, a team that finished 3-8.
The front seven should be as healthy as it's been all season. DT Mike Daniels has had time to rest an ankle issue, as has linebacker James Morris. Linebacker Tyler Nielsen has had time for his broken left hand to mend.
The right side of Iowa's D-line has been picked on. Against Nebraska it was tackle Tom Nardo and Steve Bigach and Lebron Daniel at end. The left side of the D-line is Daniels and Broderick Binns, a pair of talented seniors. It might be a good idea to change direction and split them up. It won't be a cure-all, but it can't hurt.
If OU can't simply run at Iowa, this comes down to Jones and second-team receivers outside of Kenny Stills, who took a step back this season after a record-breaking freshman year.
This puts Iowa's secondary in the crosshairs. The 20 TD passes Iowa has allowed this season is the fourth time a Ferentz-coached team has allowed 20-plus TD passes in 13 seasons. The nine interceptions Iowa has is the lowest since 2000 and a dramatic departure from the last three seasons (19, 21 and 23 the last three years).
The Hawkeyes could find inspiration in the fact that this is defensive coordinator Norm Parker's last game before retirement.
OU freshman Michael Hunnicutt made 20 of 23 field goals this season, including 4 of 4 from 40-plus (a long of 53 yards). Punter Tress Way dumped 33 punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line with just six touchbacks on 57 punts. The Sooners allowed just 121 return yards on 11 punts. The Sooners' return games were unremarkable.
Iowa's special teams were up and down all season, but punter Eric Guthrie had a terrific season (40.77 yards per punt). He put 18 punts inside the opponent's 20, had just three touchbacks and five punts of 50-plus yards. If you consider Guthrie's situation -- basically, three years behind Ryan Donahue and one season to show what you can do -- it was one of Iowa's better performances in 2011.
Kicker Mike Meyer made 12 of his first 14 attempts this season and seemed on his way to four-year starter status. Meyer finished the season just 2 of 6, a streak that began with a 24-yard miss at Minnesota, a game the Hawkeyes lost 22-21. Meyer goes into the Insight Bowl with just four touchbacks, down from 15 his freshman year.
What will it take for Iowa to win? The Hawkeyes have to be at least even in time of possession, Vandenberg has to put in his most consistent performance and the defense has to get Jones off his spots.
The idea that something heroic can happen at running back shouldn't be counted on. Coker didn't exactly come out of nowhere before his Insight offensive MVP performance last season (219 yards, two TDs). He went into the game with 400-plus yards and one 100-yard performance. The running backs behind Coker this season have 169 yards. Four backs, 169 yards.
Anything is possible, but the numbers don't support it.
Does Oklahoma want to be here? This is a team that was ranked No. 1 in both polls (Associated Press and Coaches') at the beginning of the season. Stoops openly said it's time to win a national title. So no, the Sooner didn't see themselves in Arizona playing before New Year's.
No, they don't want to be here. If it comes down to Oklahoma's state of mind vs. Iowa's talent, that makes for an interesting matchup. With Stoops facing his alma mater, Stoops will find a way to motivate his team.Oklahoma 34, Iowa 21