The Sports Network
By Scott Haynes, Senior College Football Editor
The 76th annual Orange Bowl is set for January 5th, as the 10th-ranked Iowa Hawkeyes and the ninth-ranked Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets square off at Land Shark Stadium in Miami Gardens.
The Yellow Jackets posted an 11-win campaign and captured their first outright ACC title since 1990, topping Clemson in the ACC Championship Game, 39-34. Paul Johnson's squad opened the season with a pair of victories before suffering its only league loss at Miami on September 17th (33-17). Tech rebounded nicely though, with eight straight victories to capture the ACC's Coastal Division crown and spot in the conference championship game. The team suffered its only other defeat at the hands of rival Georgia (30-24) in the regular season finale, but was able to earn the BCS bowl bid with a thrilling win over Clemson for the conference crown. The season earned Johnson his second straight ACC Coach of the Year award.
Georgia Tech is playing in its 13th consecutive bowl game and is 22-15 in the postseason all-time, including a 3-2 mark in the Orange Bowl. The Yellow Jackets have not had much success in the postseason of late, losing their last four bowl games, including a 38-3 rout at the hands of LSU in last year's Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Kirk Ferentz's Hawkeyes were not as fortunate in their bid for a conference championship this year, as back-to-back losses to Northwestern (17-10) and Ohio State (27-24 OT) in November prevented the Big Ten title and Rose Bowl bid from landing in Iowa City. Still, the team reeled off a 10-win campaign, winning nine straight to open the year and ended the regular season on a high, with a 12-0 shutout of Minnesota to place second in the Big Ten and earn the Orange Bowl bid.
Iowa is making its 24th bowl appearance and is 12-10-1 in its previous postseason play. The Hawkeyes have played in the Orange Bowl just one time before, that being a 38-17 loss to USC in 2003.
Iowa is 0-7 all-time against the ACC, while Georgia Tech is 6-6 in 12 matchups against the Big Ten. However, this is the first-ever meeting between these two teams on the gridiron.
Unlike a lot of teams in the Big Ten, Iowa utilized more of a balanced attack this season, instead of relying heavily on the run. The Hawkeyes had their moments when the ground game took center stage, but on the year, the team averaged a rather pedestrian 109.4 yards per game rushing, on 3.2 yards per carry. In addition, Iowa scored just 12 rushing touchdowns, all by tailbacks Adam Robinson (775 yards, five TDs) and Brandon Wegher (528 yards, seven TDs).
The passing attack was much more effective (221.3 ypg) as QB Ricky Stanzi completed 56 percent of his passes, for 2,186 yards and 15 TDs and came up huge late in big games when needed. The receiving corps lacked any real go-to- guy, but there were several reliable outlets on the season, in Derrell Johnson-Koulianos (41 receptions, for 687 yards, two TDs) and Marvin McNutt (30 receptions, for 653 yards, seven TDs).
A strong defense was really the key to Iowa's season, as the team limited the opposition to a mere 15.5 ppg. The team was stingy against both the run at 122.4 ypg, and the pass, where foes managed just 164.7 ypg, ranking eighth nationally in that category. The Hawkeyes thrived on big plays, racking up 29 takeaways this year, including 20 interceptions.
Several All-Big Ten First-Team members highlight the play on defense for Iowa. Linebacker Pat Angerer is one of them, after leading the team in tackles (135), with one sack, one INT and two forced fumbles. The secondary is highlighted by ball-hawking strong safety Tyler Sash (84 tackles, six INTs), while the defensive front's relentless pressure was spearheaded by defensive end Adrian Clayborn (61 tackles, 18.0 TFLs, 9.5 sacks). Other defenders of note include LB A.J. Edds (73 tackles, four INTs) and DE Broderick Binns (58 tackles, 9.0 TFLs, 6.0 sacks).
Iowa defensive coordinator Norm Parker knows the task at hand, considering Georgia Tech's electric offense.
"It's like coaching 20 years ago," he said, before adding, "but what these guys have done with this offense, they are, without question, they are the gurus of doing it. You've got to look at it and say these guys are really good. I mean, not only are they good at what they do, but they've got good players. They've done a great job."
The Yellow Jackets use a totally different approach to move the football, as they represent one of the most productive rushing teams in the nation thanks to a devastating spread offence. Georgia Tech finished the year second in the nation in rushing, churning out a ridiculous 307.2 yards per game on the ground, on a hefty 5.3 yards per carry.
It certainly helps to have one of the nation's premier tailbacks in Jonathan Dwyer (1,346 yards, 14 TDs) and an ultra-productive QB in Josh Nesbitt (991 yards rushing, 18 TDs). Throw a talented Anthony Allen (597 yards, five TDs) into the backfield, and this is a ground game that can strike at any time.
Nesbitt is critical to what Tech can accomplish on offense according to Coach Johnson.
"The key in any offense is to have a quarterback. Josh has certainly played well this year and he has done a good job running the offense and hopefully he will have a big game next Tuesday. He is a good athlete. Josh is a strong guy and he is very competitive. He is an athletic guy so he is a good runner as well as being able to throw the ball."
Despite the fact that Georgia Tech rarely goes to the air, Nesbitt has thrown for 1,689 yards and 10 TDs this season, thanks in large part to star wideout Demaryius Thomas. The 6-3, 230-pounder creates matchup problems down the field and comes into this game with 46 receptions, for 1,154 yards and eight TDs.
According to Thomas, it is "pick-you-poison" with his ability downfield.
"If you try and play a safety and a corner over the top of me then you don't have enough people in the box to stop the run. When we're running the ball well you have to have eight people in the box. That leaves me one-on-one and our offense is a vertical passing game so we can go deep on them and most of my catches can be for so many yards."
Keeping the defense fresh has been a key to Georgia Tech's success this year and a potent ground game has done just that, with Tech controlling the ball for just over 34 minutes per game. That has allowed the defense to make big plays, including 24 takeaways and 23 sacks.
The unit is highlighted by ACC Defensive Player of the Year and All-American rush end Derrick Morgan. The 6-4, 275-pounder put up a huge campaign, finishing the year with 52 tackles, 18.0 TFLs, 12.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. The linebacking corps is highlighted by standouts Brad Jefferson (team-high 90 tackles, 8.0 TFLs, two forced fumbles) and Sedric Griffin (72 tackles). All-ACC Second-Teamer Morgan Burnett (77 tackles, 3.0 TFLs, four INTs) spearheads the play in the secondary.
Coach Johnson thinks that Iowa will present a unique challenge.
"Defensively, they're probably similar to North Carolina or Clemson in that they're big up front. They're just a good defensive team. 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."