Physical styles meet in Orange Bowl
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Iowa defensive coordinator Norm Parker, a self-described "old guy" and "football purist," has enjoyed preparing for Georgia Tech's old-school spread-option offense. To him, "it's like coaching 20 years ago" -- it's fun. During his news conference Friday, Parker grabbed a few water bottles, some glasses, a coffee cup and a half-empty bottle of orange juice on the dais in an animated effort to demonstrate what the Hawkeyes would defend Tuesday when they face the Yellow Jackets in the FedEx Orange Bowl.
"That's the fullback. This is the quarterback," he said, moving things around. "We need a couple more. Let me get a couple other guys. I've got to get my core players."
Problem is, no matter how Parker lines it up, it's impossible to simulate anywhere, anyhow but in the game situation.
"We have nobody that looks like [quarterback Josh] Nesbitt, nobody that looks like [running back Jonathan] Dwyer," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "We don't have a receiver anywhere on our team that looks like [wide receiver Demaryius] Thomas. We use receivers at quarterback, but there's no way we can simulate those three players. There's no way we can simulate the execution that they have. To think we're getting an exact replication in practice, that's unrealistic."
If anyone can stop Georgia Tech's offense, though -- especially with more than a week to prepare -- it's Iowa's disciplined, fundamentally sound defense. Iowa is strong up the middle and ranked 10th in the country in total defense, ninth in scoring defense and 30th in the country in rushing defense. The key statistical matchup in this game is whether Iowa can slow down the nation's second-ranked rushing offense, which averages more than 300 yards per game.
"We've really played really great all year long, but we haven't faced a challenge like this one," Ferentz said. "It's really unique. They put a lot of pressure on you in a lot of different ways. It's so foreign to what we've seen, not only in terms of the style of attack but also the way they put pressure on you. There haven't been too many teams too successful in shutting them down, so we're just going to have to try to do our best to contain them."
On the opposing sideline, Georgia Tech will have to execute with equal precision offensively. It's not as if the Jackets haven't seen good defenses in the ACC -- North Carolina, Miami, Clemson and Virginia Tech were all mentioned by players and coaches as teams that might be comparable. But Iowa is holding its opponents to just 15.5 points and 122 rushing yards per game.
"I don't know that we've played anybody as good as Iowa," Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said. "There are some good defenses in our league, but certainly Iowa's tremendous defense is evidenced by their stats and the way they've played all year. It will be a big challenge. They're really strong up front, they're sound in the secondary, they understand what they're trying to do on defense and they're not going to beat themselves. We're going to have to block them."
The Hawkeyes get a lot of pressure with their front four, which frees the linebackers to make tackles from side to side instead of having to blitz. Each unit (defensive line, linebackers and secondary) is good enough to work independently, which allows each group to concentrate on its own responsibilities instead of lending help. And against this spread-option offense, everyone has a job to do.
Safety Tyler Sash, who is tied for ninth in the country in interceptions, will be responsible for taking the pitch at times, but the entire secondary will be tasked with defeating the chop blocks and not being duped along the way.
"That's huge because if you're not disciplined -- and I think that's something this defense is -- you can have 10 guys doing the right thing and then all of a sudden one guy is not going through his responsibility, and that's how big plays happen," Sash said. "This offense has numerous players that can hit you with the big play."
Both teams also are expecting some big hits.
"That's my running style, and that's our team's style," Dwyer said. "If somebody is going to be physical with us, we're going to be even harder back to them, so it's going to be a street fight and it's going to be our type of game."
Parker called the Yellow Jackets "the gurus" of the spread-option offense. (But don't call it the flexbone, wishbone or triple option around Johnson, who will remind you the triple option is just one play within the offensive scheme.)
"They're very well-coached," Parker said. "And these guys know what they're doing. To think that you're going to invent something new. Hell, they've done this for 30 years. So it's going to be hard to find something they haven't seen before."
Iowa's entire defense, though, might actually fit that description.
Heather Dinich covers ACC college football for ESPN.com.