ATLANTA — In an unofficial, unscientific poll carried out by a pair of reporters last week, some very unalarming results were revealed.
The question was always pretty basic.
“So, what do you know about Iowa?”
And the answer was always the same.
“Not a thing … except that they’re physical.”
Entrenched deep in fall semester finals last week, several Georgia Tech players admitted that they had not had much time to take a look at their opponent in next month’s Orange Bowl in Miami.
Some, like aerospace engineering major Sean Bedford, were too concerned with diagramming “D’Alembert’s Paradox” and properties of propulsion than to study up on Iowa.
But rest assured, the Hawkeyes were priority No. 1 for their head coach.
“We have a quality opponent in the University of Iowa,” Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson said Monday. “I’ve known (Iowa defensive coordinator) Norm Parker for a while, and he has a great reputation. They have some outstanding players, and they play well together as a team.”
No. 9 Georgia Tech’s preparations for the Jan. 5 bowl officially began with a practice on campus Monday afternoon.
In between recruiting visits last week, Johnson was able to sneak peeks at Iowa on tape. He said he was amazed by what he saw.
“Defensively, they’re probably similar to North Carolina or Clemson in that they’re big up front,” Johnson said. “Offensively, they kind of have a style of their own. They have some big offensive linemen, and they try to run the ball at you and throw some play-action. I don’t think we’ve played anyone that resembles what they do offensively.”
While that unique style has allowed one receiver — the 6-foot-4 Marvin McNutt — to average 21.8 yards per catch and haul in seven touchdown passes, generally speaking, it did very little in the Big Ten this season.
Iowa ranked sixth in its 11-team conference in passing offense and 10th in total offense.
On the other hand, in 10 starts this season, Iowa starting quarterback Ricky Stanzi finished ranked fifth in the Big Ten in total offense and sixth in passing efficiency.
The junior, who missed the season’s final two games after being knocked out of Iowa’s Nov. 7 against Northwestern with an ankle injury, also passed for 2,186 yards and 15 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.
As tough as the Hawkeyes’ balanced offensive attack can be to play against, Johnson said his team’s biggest challenge likely will come from a different group.
“Iowa’s calling card is not that (offense); it’s on the other side,” he said. “That’s where they’ve made their name this year. While they’re good on offense, they’ve made their money on defense.”
With four NFL caliber defensive linemen, the Hawkeyes feature one of the more dominating front units the Yellow Jackets would have faced all year. Although none exceed 300 pounds, each of the linemen play quite physically, Johnson said.
Each of Iowa’s starting linemen ranks among the top eight on the team in tackles, while the Hawkeyes’ three linebackers take the remaining spots. At times featuring six-man fronts, the Hawkeyes defense is full of players intent on getting to the football.
That is evident in the Hawkeyes’ penchant for creating turnovers.
Outhustling its opponents, Iowa forced 10 fumbles and came away with 16 interceptions this season. On those 26 turnovers, the Hawkeyes scored 85 points, compared to just 61 scored by the teams that played them.
“They do a great job in zone coverage and they break to the ball well, and they can get pressure with their front four,” Johnson said. “When you do that, you can drop seven back into coverage and have some interceptions.”
But while Iowa is ranked at the top of the Big Ten in passing defense and pass efficiency defense, its rushing defense is a modest fifth in the conference and 36th nationally. Of course, the Yellow Jackets feature a run-first offense and have gone games completing just one pass.
Despite that fact, however, Johnson is fully convinced his team could be in for a true fight when it heads to South Florida.
“They’re well coached and have some good players,” Johnson said. “They’re pretty good.”