Insight Bowl preview: Iowa-Missouri

After West Virginia and NC State battle in the Champs Sports Bowl on Tuesday night, the Insight Bowl takes center stage as Iowa and Missouri match up for the first time since 1910. Kirk Ferentz’s squad will be looking to close the season on a high note after losing its final three games, while Gary Pinkel’s team hopes to notch its fourth win in a row.

Here’s a closer look at the contest between the Big Ten’s Hawkeyes and the Tigers of the Big 12.

Iowa (7-5, 4-4 Big Ten): On Monday afternoon at the NFP, I wrote about the Hawkeyes using this opportunity against Missouri to close the book on both a disappointing regular season and a month filled with off-the-field drama.

Ricky StanziICONRicky Stanzi was a semifinalist for the Maxwell Award and Davey O’Brien Award.

The big key for the Hawkeyes against the Tigers is having balance on offense. Senior quarterback Ricky Stanzi, who finished second in the Big Ten and 11th in the nation with a pass efficiency rating of 160.5, threw just four interceptions on the year — the fewest for an Iowa signal caller since Brad Banks tossed just five in 2002. He also threw 26 touchdown passes and completed nearly 65 percent of his throws en route to being named a semifinalist for the Maxwell Award and the Davey O’Brien Award. However, he will be missing top receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, who is the school’s career leader in receptions and receiving yards. DJK was arrested on multiple drug charges shortly after the end of the regular season, and his first-team all-Big Ten season of 745 yards and 10 TDs will be missed. Fellow receiver Marvin McNutt and tight end Allen Reisner will be leaned upon heavily in the passing game.

But the aerial attack won’t be nearly as effective if the ground game isn’t sound, and that responsibility will fall on the shoulders of a true freshman. Marcus Coker, who has 403 rushing yards in six games, is the only legitimate option after Ferentz suspended starting running back Adam Robinson for the game. Suddenly, the Hawkeyes backfield depth that was the strength of the team for so long is now an area of weakness.

If Iowa has trouble moving the football, can the vaunted front four do enough to keep the team in the game for four quarters?

Missouri (10-2, 6-2 Big 12): These aren’t the same Tigers that used to chuck the rock around on every down. This offense has balance, and it can consistently run the football, as the unit rushed for more than 200 yards in three of its last four games. The Tigers also had 178 yards on the ground against Oklahoma. De’Vion Moore, Henry Josey and Kendial Lawrence have collectively made up for the loss of senior Derrick Washington, whose suspension shortly before the season threatened to derail the ground game.

Blaine GabbertICONIf the Hawkeyes can pressure Blaine Gabbert and put him in 3rd-and-long situations, they'll be ecstatic.

However, when you have a quarterback such as Blaine Gabbert, relying on his arm to win a game isn’t too bad of an option. In case the Hawkeyes are able to limit Mizzou’s trio of running backs on the ground, Gabbert still poses problems. He has thrown for 2,752 yards this season, and he’s worked with receivers who aren’t as explosive as a year ago. But Gabbert is great at distributing the football, as four players have at least 32 catches, and tight end Michael Egnew and wide receiver T.J. Moe have the ability to give a mediocre Iowa pass defense problems in the desert. Iowa safeties Brent Greenwood and Tyler Sash are solid, but the disappointing pass rush has put even more pressure on the Hawkeyes’ secondary. Five of the six bowl teams Iowa faced in 2010 passed for more than 200 yards and three had more than 300 yards through the air.

This could be a game won or lost by Gabbert. If he can stay upright and not get flustered by Iowa’s front four, Mizzou has a great chance to win. But if the signal caller is rattled, all bets are off. Keep in mind that in both of the team’s losses, Gabbert completed fewer than half of his passes. He also struggles mightily on third downs, so it’s imperative for the Hawkeyes to stuff the run and force third-and-long situations.

It would be odd to see a turnover-filled game considering that the Hawkeyes have just nine giveaways — the fewest in the country. The Tigers, meanwhile, have turned the ball over just 16 times — tied for fewest in the Big 12 with Oklahoma and tied for 15th fewest in the country.

The difference

If Iowa is able to thwart the Missouri running game, the game will obviously rest on the arm of Gabbert. What can the Tigers do to move the chains without throwing it down the field on every down? Get the screen game going, which could act as a de facto rushing attack. Moe and Egnew will often catch the ball on the edge and work for yards, loosening up the middle of the defense in order to re-establish the run. Also, screens allow Gabbert to get the ball out of his hands quickly and avoid getting exposed to the defensive line on five- and seven-step drops.

Adrian ClaybornICONAdrian Clayborn hopes to be victorious in his last game at Iowa.

Iowa is not taking Missouri lightly, and even with the personnel issues on offense I expect a valiant effort on the part of the veteran Hawkeyes. I’m just not sure that Iowa can recapture that ’09 magic for one-night only. And I think they will miss DJK in the return game. And we all know how sluggish the Hawkeyes’ special teams units were this season.

The numbers don’t lie

• The Hawkeyes finished the season bowl eligible for the 10th straight year and will be playing in their 25th bowl game.

• Iowa has recorded a 5-3 mark under Ferentz in postseason play.

• The Hawkeyes have played seven games in the state of Arizona, posting a 2-5 record, including a 34-27 loss to Arizona on September 18.

• This will be Missouri’s 28th appearance in a bowl game, and the Tigers have posted a 12-15 mark in the postseason.

• Since 2007, Missouri has won 40 games — 10th-most victories in the nation during that span.

Email or follow me on Twitter at Miller_Dave

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