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Know The Opponent: Iowa

 

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OFFENSE 

 

This is going to feel weird to type: Iowa can't run the football. 

 

The Hawkeyes are 81st in the nation at 4.15 yards per carry; they're worse than teams including Ball State, Louisville, Indiana, Georgia State and Kansas, but shockingly better than LSU, so keep that in mind. It was particularly bad in the three-game losing streak that ended October and started November (at Penn State, at Purdue, Northwestern) when it ran for 3.2 yards per carry over those three games; it was much better in beating Illinois and Nebraska to close the season, but those are two of the worst rush defenses in the Power 5, so take that as you will. 

 

The advanced numbers are equally harsh on the Hawkeye running game: 109th in the nation in Bill Connelly's efficiency and 122nd in explosiveness (there are 130 FBS teams). The one thing the Iowa run game has going for it is a strong offensive line, in that it rarely gets stopped for no gain or a loss: its stuff rate ranks 16th in the nation, as that happens only 15 percent of the time. 

 

Iowa uses a trio of sophomore running backs as its top guys: Mekhi Sargent, Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin, in that order. All of them have more than 90 carries, but Sargent is the leader with 152 for 748 yards and nine touchdowns. 

 

The passing game, however, has been more prolific than we usually see from a Hawkeye team. 

 

Iowa has only had one 2,500-yard passing season since 2012, yet Nate Stanley already has 2,638 yards and 23 touchdowns before this bowl game. It's not a terribly explosive passing attack -- 63rd in the nation in passes of 20 yards or more -- but no one in the country has more third-down passing yards than Iowa, 1,063. Its third-down QB rating (147.54) is just outside the top 25 nationally and of its 69 completions on third down, 28 have gone for 15 or more yards. 

 

Tight end T.J. Hockenson is quite the weapon: he's fourth in the nation with 378 receiving yards on third down and he's been on the receiving end of 16 of Iowa's 69 third-down completions. He leads the team with 717 receiving yards -- and Iowa will need more of him as its No. 2 pass catcher, tight end Noah Fant, is off for the NFL Draft and will not play in the Outback Bowl. 

 

(Yes, Iowa has two tight ends leading the team in receiving yards. What a moment for the brand.) 

 

Actual wide receiver start with senior Nick Easley, the No. 3 Hawkeye in receiving yards, but he has had a very similar season to sophomores Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith, so there's little signs of favoritism among the perimeter threats. 

 

DEFENSE 

 

Strong defense. Eighth in the nation in yards per carry allowed (MSU is 7th) and 18th in the nation in yards per pass attempt allowed (MSU is 3rd). 

 

The advanced numbers give the Iowa run defense a little bit of a bend-but-don't-break profile, in that you can stay on schedule a little bit with manageable third downs but you almost never break explosive runs on them. The advanced numbers on the pass defense don't reflect that, they're good across the board. 

 

Third down is a complicated story. The Hawkeyes are 31st in the nation in third-down conversion rate allowed, 34.76 percent, which could be much worse, but situationally there are some weaknesses. In Bill Connelly's numbers, Iowa is 124th in the nation in allowing opponents to convert third-and-long 42.1 percent of the time. 

 

Anthony Nelson and A.J. Epenesa are the pass rushers to know, both of them with 9.5 sacks so far. Parker Hesse is a heck of a run stopper, as is Epenesa. Amani Hooker and Geno Stone lead the team with four interceptions each, but Michael Ojemudia and Jake Gervase have three each. 

 

SPECIAL TEAMS 

 

Miguel Recinos is a heck of a kickoff man and a pretty good placekicker, too. Punter Colten Rastetter is far from a standout but he's no disaster, either, but watch out for QB Nate Stanley there: he's punted twice this year, so the pooch punt is in play. 

 

The weapon here is Ihmir Smith-Marsette as a kick returner. Iowa has one of the better units nationally in this regard. 

 

Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson

 

 

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