clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Keys to a Citrus Bowl win against Iowa

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 14 Texas A&M at Tennessee Photo by Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In the Q&A piece I did with Iowa’s SB Nation site, we discussed the Hawkeyes’ two losses in 2023 — one against Michigan and the other against Penn State.

There’s an excerpt from that conversation that I found interesting and relevant to the upcoming game. Instead of paraphrasing, I’ll just post it here:

3.) All kidding aside, the two games Iowa’s lost this season were also the only two games in which it allowed more than 20 points to the opposing team. Is there anything to that, is it just a coincidence or does it have more to do with the two contests being against Penn State and Michigan?”

There’s certainly something to be said for the two best team’s Iowa faced all year putting up the most points. Obvious answer is obvious. But those two games also played out very differently and if Iowa had any pulse on offense, neither of those teams would have topped 20 points.

PSU did exactly what what Phil Parker bets nobody is willing to do: they stayed patient ALL game and never once took a shot. They averaged 4.5 yards per attempt in the passing game with the longest play of the day coming on a 19-yard run. But Iowa’s offense was so inept, they couldn’t string anything together to give the D a break and ultimately, the Nittany Lions used 99 plays on offense to put up 31 points and benefitted from four Hawkeye fumbles (one of which set up PSU inside the redzone).

Michigan, quite simply, didn’t do anything to beat Iowa’s defense. They ultimately scored 26 points (well below their season average), but they managed just 213 yards of total offense - the lowest total in nearly a decade. For anyone that watched the Big Ten Championship Game, things ultimately hinged on two plays that gifted Michigan 14 of their 26 points. One was an uncharacteristic punt return allowed which set up the Wolverine offense inside the five and the other was a pass that was blown dead and ruled incomplete on the field but ended up giving Michigan the ball inside the ten again because it was a Wolverine player who walked over after the play and picked up the dead ball to return it to the official.

If Tennessee is looking to score points on Monday, the PSU model is the one to attempt emulating.

Since the Iowa folks said the best way to beat the Hawkeyes was to follow the Penn State roadmap, I thought I’d watch as much of the Iowa/ Penn State game as I could find and pick out some areas where the Vols should try to take advantage.

The team that makes the fewest mistakes will win

First, I apologize for the video quality. The program I use only allows videos to run at 25 frames per-second, and I’d need at least 60, or preferably higher, to get rid of the lag. And I’ve been trying to find a replacement for going on two years now. It’s been a massive headache. Regardless, my apologies.

When in doubt, Listen to General Neyland.

Against State, Iowa fumbled the ball six times and lost four of them. As you saw in the clip, two came via pressure on the quarterback, one came on a freak special teams play and the other was just a defender putting a helmet on the ball and knocking it loose. This year, the Hawkeyes finished 76th in the country, averaging 1.5 turnovers per-game. For context, the Vols averaged one turnover per-game and finished 16th-best in the country. That’s a possible advantage for Tennessee. Some necessary context: State was the best in the country at getting to the QB this season, averaging more than four sacks per-game, and UT finished tied for 26th with 2.6 sacks on average this year. Iowa came in at 69th (nice) with two sacks a game.

Now it won’t be Cade McNamara playing QB tomorrow, but if the line can get to Deacon Hill and create some havoc, the Vols have a chance to create an extra possession or two for the offense. Penn State accrued 13 pressures, three sacks, six hits and four hurries. Quite frankly, the Nittany Lions were in Iowa’s backfield more than the Hawkeye running backs. I figure Tim Banks is aggressive early to try and make Hill beat the defense through the air. 2023 All-SEC edge rusher James Pearce and fellow sophomore Joshua Josephs will have to wreak havoc off the edges, while Omari Thomas, Elijah Simmons, Omarr-Norman Lott and Bryson Eason eat up blockers on the interior. With the loss of Tyler Baron, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Tyre West start at the DE spot, with Josephs spelling him on passing downs and true freshman Daevin Hobbs subbing in when the line needs some extra weight up front. Regardless, to get the win, UT will have to create some turnovers and limit any crucial mistakes on offense.

Get the ball to the tight ends

In the Penn State game, the Nittany Lion TEs scored all four of State’s touchdowns. I’m not ready to crown Nico the savior of the program yet, but there are throws in that clip that I feel more comfortable with Nico making than I would if it was Joe Milton. Less than 40 percent of Milton’s attempts came from 10 yards or beyond, and his completion percentage on those throws (intermediate attempts — 10-19 yards and deep balls — 20 yards or longer) was just 39 percent.

Iowa LB Jay Higgins graded out fantastically in pass coverage this season, but the rest of the Hawkeye linebackers got pretty poor grades from the folks at PFF. I’d still prefer the staff to find ways to get the TEs on corners or safeties, especially near the goal line, to take advantage of the size discrepancies. But I’ll take UTs tight ends against the Hawkeye LBs if necessary.

McCallan Castles, Jacob Warren and Ethan Davis combined for 38 catches this year and eight TDs. With the WR banged up, it’s even more important that the offense uses the tight ends in the passing game and hopefully steal a TD in the red zone or hit a pass down the seam for chunk play.

Let Nico run the ball

Again, I’m kinda driving without a map here, since we have no history to draw on about what the staff’s plans are for Nico. But Penn State used several designed QB runs and some read-option stuff off those runs to create yards. The two Penn State quarterbacks who played combined for 16 rushes and 77 yards.

I doubt we’ll see much of the power run game with Nico carrying the ball. But if the offense can get him to the edge enough on read-option plays to see if he can outrun the Iowa defenders — then mix things up and hand the ball to Sampson or Cam Seldon up the middle, maybe the run game can get going.

In total, the Nittany Lions rushed the ball 57 times for 215 yards, and despite missing Jaylen Wright and Jabari Small, the Vols are a run-first team that’s capable of putting up similar numbers, especially with a quicker, more nimble guy at QB that Iowa doesn’t have any tape on.

Honestly, I don’t feel great about the matchup, especially with a brand new QB, two missing running backs and three defensive starters gone to the transfer portal. But if Tennessee can emulate Penn State’s strategy to a degree and limit its own mistakes — cough, cough, penalties, cough, cough — then hopefully the Vols can bring a win back to Knoxville.