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Iowa braces for Tech's offense
A stadium worker washes seats Monday in preparation for tonight’s Orange Bowl at Land Shark Stadium in Miami. - photo by The Associated Press

MIAMI — It was breakfast time, and Iowa Hawkeyes defensive coordinator Norm Parker sat at a table trying to explain the challenge of stopping Georgia Tech's triple option.

Parker waved his cup of morning coffee.

"This is the quarterback," he said.

He grabbed a jug of orange juice.

"That's the fullback," he said.

An empty glass became a defensive end, and a water bottle became a linebacker. Soon Parker was pushing the containers around, trying to contain the Yellow Jackets.

That will be the goal for Iowa in the Orange Bowl tonight.

"If you're a football purist, this thing is really sort of fun," said Parker, a coach for 45 years. "This triple-option stuff sort of started in the late '60s. Georgia Tech has taken this offense and made it better and better and better. And when a lot of people got away from the triple option, they stayed with it. So now what was very common is sort of new.

"I'm having fun preparing for it. But all the fun I'm having now might not be that much fun the night of the game."

For opponents, playing the No. 9-ranked Yellow Jackets (11-2) can be no fun at all. Tech ranks second in the nation in rushing yards per game at 307.2, 11th in total offense at 442.7 yards and 11th in scoring at 35.3 points.

No. 10-ranked Iowa (10-2) relied on a stingy defense to earn a Bowl Championship Series berth for the first time in seven years. The Hawkeyes rank 10th in scoring defense at 15.5 points per game, and 11th in total defense at 286.7 yards.

But this is the first time in Kirk Ferentz's 11 years as head coach that the Hawkeyes have faced a triple option. It may help that they've had a month to prepare for the Yellow Jackets.

"The good news is we've had time," Ferentz said. "The bad news is we can't come close to simulating what they do with the precision, speed and the expertise. We're getting a lot of looks at it, I guess; it's just not the look we'll be seeing on the 5th, that's for sure."

For the Hawkeyes, other bowl results are ominous. Navy and Air Force also run the triple option, and both won New Year's Eve games, scoring a combined 82 points.

Why don't more teams run the triple option?

"I think the reason people got away from it is because it wasn't fancy enough for the public," Parker said. "They didn't want to see the fullback run up the middle with the ball. The public wants to see the ball in the air and whoop-de-doo and all that kind of stuff."

To prepare for Georgia Tech, Iowa's defense practiced against a scout team that ran the option with quarterback Dakota Getz, a freshman who played that position in high school but is now a tight end. It'll be a bit different when the Hawkeyes try to stop Yellow Jackets quarterback Josh Nesbitt, who ran for 991 yards and 18 touchdowns this season.

In the triple option, Nesbitt keeps, hands off on a dive play or pitches wide. Tech's biggest threat is junior Jonathan Dwyer, who topped 1,300 yards rushing for the second consecutive season and has 36 career touchdowns.

"Words can't describe how exciting the offense is to be a part of — to know in any part of the game a big play is going to happen," Dwyer said.

Not all of Tech's big plays come on the ground. They're averaging 23.2 yards per completion and have gained at least 50 yards on passes 11 times.

"They don't throw the ball much," Iowa safety Tyler Sash said. "But every other time that they do, it seems like it's a touchdown or big play."

Tech's Demaryius Thomas, who has totaled 1,154 yards on only 46 receptions, frowned when asked what it's like to play on a team known for its ground game.

"You get used to it," Thomas said. Then he smiled. "When I get my chances, I take advantage of them."

The Yellow Jackets were held to less than 200 yards on the ground only once — on the same field where they'll play Tuesday.

They netted 95 yards rushing in a 33-17 loss to the Miami Hurricanes in September.

"That was our third game in 12 days, and we were just worn out," Nesbitt said.

In the weeks since, they've topped 40 points four times, and beat Clemson 39-34 in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game.

Unstoppable? Center Sean Bedford said it feels that way.

"There are times we feel like with this offense, it doesn't matter what you throw at us — we're going to be able to put it in the end zone," Bedford said.

While the Hawkeyes haven't faced a team like Tech, the Yellow Jackets haven't faced a team like Iowa. Nesbitt said the Hawkeyes will be by far the most physical defense he has gone against.

The Hawkeyes shut out Minnesota in their regular-season finale and held three other bowl-bound teams to 10 points or less.

"They're big," Nesbitt said. "I think they intimidate their opponents just by how hard they hit you and their size. Also they can move. So we're going to have our hands full."

Nesbitt said the Yellow Jackets didn't add any wrinkles to the playbook during the December layoff, and will rely on what worked during the regular season. They ran the ball 83 percent of the time, which helped them lead the nation in time of possession at more than 34 minutes per game. They had only 14 three-and-outs, fewest in the nation.

The Yellow Jackets won by such scores as 42-31, 49-44, 56-31 and 30-27 twice. The result: Their biggest bowl berth since 1967.

"Everybody says they want to run the ball, but everybody doesn't have the patience to do it, and we do," offensive coordinator Brian Bohannon said. "That's who we are. We're going to live and die by running the football."

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