IOWA RUSH OFFENSE VS. LSU RUSH DEFENSE
LSU defensive tackles Anthony Johnson (6-3, 294) and Ego Ferguson (6-3, 309) are front and center when talk of Tigers entering the NFL draft early begins. They are pistons. Johnson has cut 40 pounds since arriving at LSU and has been clocked around 4.7 seconds in the 40-yard dash. He leads the Tigers with 7.0 tackles for loss and 3.0 sacks. Ferguson has 3.5 tackles for loss. Beyond numbers, however, they do what 300-pound defensive tackles are supposed to do, push O-linemen around and clog things.
UDPATE: Ferguson didn't travel with the team and won't play against, Iowa, according to The Times-Picayune.
Defensive ends Jermauria Rasco and Danielle Hunter have combined for 13 tackles for loss and six sacks, with Rasco owning a team-high four. Weakside linebacker Lamin Barrow leads the Tigers with 86 tackles. LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis runs a 4-3. The concept is much like Iowa's. It's fast, physical. The Tigers can switch coverages and run a multitude of blitzes.
This matchup will come down to Johnson and Ferguson against Iowa's inside O-linemen, center Austin Blythe and guards Jordan Walsh and Conor Boffeli (or Andrew Donnal, who switches in and out with Walsh).
LSU's power plant is in the middle. Iowa has a power back in Mark Weisman (6-0, 236), who has a chance to be as healthy as he's been all season (fighting through foot, pectoral, elbow and knee injuries). Boffelli will be a key player today. Iowa leans on the inside zone and keeping LSU's powerful tackles from killing those at the point of attack will mean a lot for Iowa.
That said, the outside zone is Iowa's second punch. How much will Iowa (read: Kirk Ferentz and Greg Davis) allow itself to lean on Damon Bullock and Jordan Canzeri in this regard? Canzeri's emergence is as simple as this: He averaged 16.4 yards a game in the first seven games of the season, but in the final five, he's averaged 83 yards a game. Ball security kept him off the field. Iowa seems to be over that.
IOWA PASS OFFENSE VS. LSU PASS DEFENSE
LSU has churned out massive talent in the secondary up to and including Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu, Eric Reid, Brandon Taylor, Morris Claiborne, Tharold Simon and Ron Brooks. Cornerback Jalen Mills steps into the realm. He's in the shutdown category, who at 6-1 takes advantage of his reach and length. Mills leads the Tigers with three interceptions. Tre’Davious White (5-11, 177) starts at the other corner. He doesn't have the resume Mills has, but coming out of Shreveport's Green Oaks High School, White was rated a five-star recruit by Rivals, the No. 4 corner and No. 18 player in the nation overall.
In other words, there has been some drop-off, as you can imagine, but LSU's secondary remains plentifully starred. Senior (senior, on LSU?) strong safety Craig Loston (6-2, 209) is "coach on field" guy. Chavis runs a number of nickel and dime packages (including a "Mustang" package with six defensive backs), so some backup defensive backs are near the top of LSU's sack chart (Dwayne Thomas is tied for the team lead with three).
Iowa faces a pure speed challenge against LSU. Can the Hawkeyes run LSU defenders out of the box? If the Tigers don't respect Iowa's passing game, it will load up on the run and make this a power-on-power game. Iowa can do that, but offensive coordinator Greg Davis prefers balance. Where can Iowa gain a vertical advantage? Maybe three tight ends, maybe a quick tight end (Jake Duzey or George Kittle) on a linebacker?
Quarterback Jake Rudock's health is in question (sidenote: freshman C.J. Beathard has seen reps with the No. 1 offense some this week). He, of course, suffered a sprained knee against Nebraska. In Outback practices, he has been able to shed one of the knee braces (he sprained his other knee against Wisconsin at the beginning of November). Rudock isn't a Johnny Manziel as far as escape-ability goes, but, when healthy, he moves well and has shown he can keep it together under pressure and with plays falling apart. That's an element that will have to reveal itself today.
LSU RUSH OFFENSE VS. IOWA RUSH DEFENSE
LSU averaged 5.1 yards a carry and rushed for 34 TDs this season. To put that on an Iowa scale, the last time Iowa averaged 5.0 yards a carry in a season was 5.03 in 2002 and the last time Iowa rushed for 34 TDs was 1990, when the Hawkeyes scored a school record 38 rush TDs. Just some facts for proportion purposes.
Jeremy Hill (6-2, 230) has rushed for 1,185 yards, 14 TDs and averages 6.7 yards a carry. He's the starter, but the rest of the cast is equally impressive with Terrence Magee (614 yards, 7.7 yards a carry and eight TDs), Kenny Hilliard, and Alfred Blue, who was recently awarded a fifth year of eligibility but might enter the NFL draft.
The LSU offensive line is a strong zone blocking unit. The Tigers are a little young, starting two juniors, two sophomores and a redshirt freshman. Junior left tackle La'el Collins (6-5, 315) is considering a jump to the NFL (a steady theme).
Iowa might be able to anchor here. Junior defensive tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat are working their way into NFL prospect-hood. They've kept Iowa's linebackers from having to wrestle with guards this season. They've really made a world of difference for Iowa's defense. You knew the senior LB trio of James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens had talent, but in '12, they were only as good as the D-line in front of them. Iowa was young and inexperienced. Trinca-Pasat might lead the team in snaps the last two seasons (probably only behind linebackers who play special teams). Davis just flat out got better and has made his body (6-5, 315) work for him.
LSU PASS OFFENSE VS. IOWA PASS DEFENSE
By now, you know all about the unfortunate end to Zach Mettenberger's season. The senior quarterback went through a metamorphosis under first-year coordinator Cam Cameron, who coached in the NFL and was head coach at Indiana, passing for 3,082 yards, 22 TDs and just eight interceptions.
Mettenberger suffered in the fourth quarter of LSU's season finale and in stepped true freshman Anthony Jennings. He led the game-winning drive in the Tigers' comeback victory over Arkansas, hitting WR Travin Dural from 49 yards with 1:15 to play. So, Jennings has 42 snaps, 10 passes and one game-winning TD pass.
Jennings (6-2, 211) isn't Mettenberger. He's a better overall athlete, but he's not the passer Mettenberger is. This is a problem for LSU's offense because its best assets -- wide receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. -- don't activate unless the QB delivers them the ball. Landry and Beckham might be the best WR duo in the country. They're 1,000-yard receivers, combining for 2,289 yards and 28 TDs. For an Iowa scale on this, that's never happened at Iowa.
Beckham is more of a threat down the field, averaging 19.6 yards a catch. Landry dominates the short and intermediate areas, but these WRs are five-tool five-stars.
Iowa went after Nebraska QB Ron Kellogg III in it season finale. The Hawkeyes executed several successful blitzes, pressuring decisions, putting hits on and keeping the Huskers in a clench. The point here is that Iowa pressured a relatively inexperienced QB. Jennings might be a great athlete, but you can't just say you're experienced.
Let's back track to the Cam Cameron reference. You might remember he was the coach at Indiana in the late '90s. He helped guide QB Antwaan Randle El, who compiled a 3-1 record against the Hawkeyes by basically playing keep away. Yes, Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker said Iowa did review some old Randle El/Indiana tape. He even joked about the quality of the video.
Freshman kicker Colby Delahoussaye set an LSU record when he made the first nine field goal attempts of his career. He's made 13 of 14 attempts this season with 3 of 3 from 40 to 49 yards. Punter Jamie Keehn has downed 14 punts inside the opponent's 20 and have five kicks of 50-plus yards. The Tigers lead the country in punt return defense, allowing just .91 yards a return (10 yards on 11 returns). Beckham is a 1,000-yard receiver and he also leads the Tigers in punt returns (141 yards) and kick returns (806 yards). Beckham won the Hornung Award this season, given the nation's most versatile player.
Iowa wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley finished the regular season as the Big Ten's leader in punt returns with 16.2 yards on 18 returns. Kicker Mike Meyer is locked into second place in Iowa history with 61 FGs. The temptation to write that Iowa will have to contend with LSU's overall team speed is automatic, and so this is where kick coverage becomes a thing. Iowa is 99th in the nation with eight kick returns of 30-plus yards allowed. The kick cover unit has been inconsistent. That could be a problem against an explosive return threat like Beckham.
1) Yeah, but do they want to be here? — That's always the big question of bowl season, isn't it? LSU beat Auburn. Auburn will play for the national title. The Tigers are in Tampa. It's a door prize for a program that just doesn't have time for second or third place or Tampa. One thing that LSU coach Les Miles said this week, however, really does ring true. LSU is possibly looking at another nine players leaving early for the NFL on top of the 11 who left last season. He said it's a big deal for players who have those aspirations in their heads to play a great bowl game. It'll be a piece of their NFL resumes.
2) How deep is your program? — Depth is what separates the Iowas and the LSUs of the college football world. When the Hawkeyes won miraculously over LSU in the 2005 Capital One Bowl, sophomore QB Drew Tate threw the game-winning TD pass. He was backed up by juco transfer Nathan Chandler. In that Cap One game, JaMarcus Russell, the No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft, was LSU's third QB. Matt Flynn, who helped steer the Packers while Aaron Rodgers recovered from a broken collarbone, also had a shot in the game. They weren't even the starters. Yes, Zach Mettenberger is out for LSU, but Anthony Jennings was the No. 5 dual-threat QB in the 2013 recruiting class. His list of offers, which included Iowa, reads like the all-time top 25. He's thrown 10 passes in his career, AKA this season.
3) Ferentz vs. blue bloods — Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz relishes the challenge of taking the Hawkeyes and seeing what happens against the Big Ten's best programs. It holds true for bowl games vs. the SEC. Ferentz is 3-1 against the SEC in bowl games, 4-1 if you throw in the 2010 Insight Bowl over Missouri, then in the Big 12 and now in the SEC. This is Iowa's chance to show college football that it can compete, on any given Saturday, against teams no one believes it can compete with. Ferentz really seems to dig this. No matter what happens, Iowa will throw its best punch.
IOWA WILL WIN IF . . .
It can pressure Jennings and muddle how he sees the game. Iowa's secondary isn't as fast as LSU's receivers. This could end up like Ohio State, with accurate passes vs. big cushions by CBs and then a zone read against a defense triggered to the outside. It stands true pretty much every game, but Iowa needs to make sure Jennings knows the clock is running when it's time to throw the ball.
LSU WILL WIN IF . . .
The Tigers limit Iowa's running game. Rudock is going to see blitzes. LSU won't sit back and allow a QB to pick it apart. Iowa will want to test LSU's strongest force, up the middle of the defense. This is what Iowa does. This is how Iowa measures itself in a lot of ways. If the Hawkeyes can win more than they lose on the inside zone, the game shifts more to the passing game. That didn't work, and was rather ugly, against Michigan State and Wisconsin.PREDICTION: Iowa 30, LSU 24