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Outback Bowl Preview: Mississippi State

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Expect Iowa’s final game of the season to be a defensive struggle

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Another year, another Outback Bowl. Hawkeye fans can be forgiven for feeling like they’re experiencing déjà vu as the Iowa football team prepares to participate in its sixth trip to Raymond James Stadium during the Ferentz era.

While the locale is less exotic than some fans might have hoped for, the 2019 Outback Bowl does provide Iowa with an intriguing matchup against the 8-4 Mississippi State Bulldogs, an opponent against whom the Hawkeyes have never competed. The Bulldogs may be a new adversary to Iowa, but they are led by a familiar face in Joe Moorhead, the former Penn State offensive coordinator who oversaw victories over the Hawkeyes in 2016 and ‘17. Moorehead’s squad encountered a number of difficulties in early conference play, but eventually managed to right the ship and win four of its final five games, with its lone loss coming on the road against top ranked Alabama. Mississippi State appears to have finally found its rhythm under Moorehead, and the Bulldogs’ talented roster and aggressive brand of defense should pose a major challenge to the Hawkeyes as Kirk Ferentz’s squad attempts to win its second straight bowl game on New Year’s Day.

Here are a few key factors to watch heading into the final game of the 2018 season and, coincidentally, the first game of the 2019 calendar year:

1. Which offensive line can best contain the opposing front four?

Iowa’s defensive line has been a matchup nightmare for its opponents all season long. The Hawkeyes boast two NFL-caliber pass rushers in AJ Epenesa and Anthony Nelson who have terrorized Big Ten offensive tackles this year, while the unit’s deep and versatile roster of contributors has proven capable of consistently wearing down opposing offensive lines over the course of a game. Even as the Hawkeyes faced significant inexperience, injuries, and inconsistencies at the linebacker and cornerback positions, the overwhelming strength of the defensive line was enough to overcome most of these shortcomings and produce a highly productive and accomplished defense.

Iowa’s Outback Bowl opponent will seek to give the Hawkeyes a taste of their own medicine. Led by All-American defensive end and pass rusher extraordinaire Montez Sweat, the Bulldog line is the driving force behind a defense that excels at disrupting the line of scrimmage; Mississippi State ranks fifth in tackles-for-loss per game and twelfth in sacks. Defensive tackle Jeffrey Simmons is the unsung hero of this unit with his uncommon speed and ability to penetrate the offensive backfield, and like Iowa, the Bulldogs can also call upon a deep and talented second unit made up of players that would likely start for many Division 1 programs, including Fletcher Adams and Chauncey Rivers.

Both offensive lines will find themselves hard-pressed to contain their opponent’s front four. The closest comparison to the Bulldog defensive line that Iowa has faced this year is Penn State, and the Nittany Lion front four was incredibly disruptive for most of that contest, sacking Nate Stanley three times and consistently producing pressure with only a four-man rush. Yetur Gross-Matos lived in the backfield for much of the game making impact plays such as those below, and Montez Sweat will arguably be an even more difficult matchup for Iowa’s Alaric Jackson to contain.

On the other hand, Mississippi State’s offensive line will face similar challenges. Senior right guard Deion Calhoun has been solid all season for the Bulldogs but considering that the strength of Iowa’s pass rush lies on the outside, the Hawkeye front should still be able to make a significant impact on the game. While neither team is capable of completely neutralizing its opponent’s D-line, should either team show that it can withstand pressure from the front four alone and force its opponent to commit additional rushers in an attempt to establish control over the line of scrimmage, that offense will find it much easier to move the ball against the talented defense of its adversary.

2. Can Nate Stanley help Iowa’s offense find its spark?

Unfortunately for Iowa, Mississippi State’s defensive prowess extends beyond its front four. Safety Jonathan Abram is one of the nation’s best at his position and serves as the anchor to a talented Bulldog secondary, while Eroll Thompson leads a skilled if somewhat unheralded linebacking corps. Mississippi State’s defense surrenders the fewest points (twelve) and yards (268.4) per game of any team in the nation and the Bulldogs are sound in every aspect of their defensive performance, allowing the fewest rushing (7) and passing (5) touchdowns in college football this season. No opponent has managed to score 30 points against the Bulldogs the entire year.

On the flip side, Iowa’s offense has been wildly inconsistent this season; the same Hawkeye team that was held under 20 points in three contests in 2018 also dropped 63 on Illinois and produced ten passing touchdowns over a two-game span in early October. However, one area in which Iowa’s offense has historically been quite consistent is in its bowl game struggles. It has been a decade since the Hawkeyes last scored 30+ points in a bowl game (the 2009 Outback Bowl against South Carolina), and it’s hard to imagine Iowa matching that feat against a defense of this caliber.

Still, it will be up to Stanley to shake off the rust from Iowa’s month-long layoff and lead the offense on successful drives. The absence of Noah Fant should allow the Bulldogs to focus the bulk of their defensive intensity on keeping the ball out of TJ Hockenson’s hands, so Stanley will likely need to rely on his wide receivers far more than he has at any point during the season in order to move the ball through the air. Additionally, Stanley will need to account for the Bulldogs’ fearsome pass rush, an area in which he has had some struggles over the course of his career.

Mississippi State has the kind of defense that excels at forcing opposing offenses to do things that they are fundamentally uncomfortable with in order to beat them. Iowa’s coaches should fully expect the Bulldogs to take away the run and force Stanley to beat them through the air, hoping that they can rely on their excellent pass rush and coverage skills to stymie Iowa’s passing attack. Iowa’s best countermove to this strategy remains unclear; perhaps Brian Ferentz can use the screen and short passing game as a release valve to escape the Bulldog pressure or find creative ways to target Ihmir Smith-Marsette in the vertical passing game. However, if the Hawkeyes are unable to effectively deploy a counter-move against the Bulldog defense, it seems unlikely that Iowa will find any modicum of offensive success.

3. Can Iowa’s defense contain Nick Fitzgerald?

Mississippi State’s senior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald is a dynamic athlete and a fierce competitor, but his skill as a passer leaves much to be desired. Mississippi State’s four losses had two major factors in common: each opponent managed to hold the Bulldog offense under ten points, and each of them forced Nick Fitzgerald to make plays with his arm. Despite rushing for over 1,000 yards this season, Fitzgerald has only 1615 yards through the air and has completed only 52% of his passes.

There are a few games that Phil Parker has hopefully studied in preparation for facing Fitzgerald and the Mississippi State offense. First, the Bulldogs’ game against Florida (now coached by former Mississippi State head man Dan Mullen) was particularly instructive, as Mullen used his intimate knowledge of Fitzgerald’s strengths and weaknesses to construct a series of blitzes and coverages that confused Fitzgerald and forced him to make multiple mistakes. Furthermore, while Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez is a more polished passer than Fitzgerald and is likely more capable of beating the Hawkeyes through the air, Iowa has hopefully improved on its ability to maintain discipline in its coverage assignments during quarterback scrambles, an issue that resulted in a number of frustrating lapses during Iowa’s victory over the Huskers on Black Friday.

Finally, Iowa can revisit its remarkable run of success in defending former Michigan standout Denard Robinson for a blueprint for how best to contain Fitzgerald. While Robinson was a far more dynamic athlete than Fitzgerald and relied more on his speed as a runner rather than his physicality, both quarterbacks struggled to consistently make intermediate throws into tight windows or connect with receivers downfield, causing them to struggle against a bend-don’t-break defense capable of forcing them to make those very plays. Like Robinson, Fitzgerald’s passing mechanics leave much to be desired and have a particular tendency to break down when faced with significant pressure, so the Hawkeyes should seek to find creative blitzing schemes designed to get to the quarterback while also keeping him confined to the pocket. Iowa’s offense is likely to struggle against the vicious Bulldog defense, but forcing turnovers, dominating the field position battle, and keeping Mississippi State off the board as often as possible may be Iowa’s best recipe for victory.