The Iowa football team earned its ninth win of the year—and a consecutive bowl victory—in a perfectly exciting 27-22 win over No. 18 Mississippi State in the Outback Bowl.
The game started just as you would expect a matchup between top-30 defenses and bottom-200 offenses. This looked like it was going to be a downright rock fight from the get go, where Iowa trotted out two consecutive three and outs to set the tone early. It appeared as it would be more of the same until a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct on Mississippi State, followed by a 12-yard catch by Brandon Smith, followed by a Targeting penalty on MSU put Iowa into field goal range. Miguel Recinos and his glorious mustache made the score 6-3.
Mississippi State was undisciplined all day, and they would pay.
Iowa’s defense set a standard early on, too. Creative stunt and blitz packages by Iowa’s defensive line stymied Nick Fitzgerald to nickel and dimeing into field goal position all day, but touchdowns would be at a premium. A tough three-and-out on MSU’s third drive of the game gave Iowa the ball on the 25-yard line. Iowa had negative yardage right up until this happened:
STANLEY TO NICK EASLEY 75 YARD TD pic.twitter.com/POFPKtl92n— HeavensBarstool (@HeavensHawkeye) January 1, 2019
And just like that, momentum, a fickle mistress in the world of college football, had shifted. With Mississippi State reeling, AJ Epenesa insured that Nick Fitzgerald would have nightmares about this game for years to come.
That sack made AJE the Big Ten leader in the category, and opened the door to Ihmir Smith-Marsette’s third touchdown of the year.
This offensive explosion came during a stretch where Nate Stanley completed 8 consecutive passes, finding ISM, Easley and Brandon Smith early and often. He was Iowa’s entire offense to speak of, as the Hawkeyes managed to amass just *checks box score* NEGATIVE 15 RUSHING YARDS all day long. The Bulldogs stacked the box and stuffed Iowa’s stable of backs early and often.
Iowa would go into the half up 17-6 and it felt like the Hawkeyes would step on MSU’s throat after receiving the kick at half.
Well, it’s not Iowa football without a little drama.
A B-A-D Stanley interception to Willie Gay gave MSU ball on its 6 yard line within the first three minutes of the half. A Kylin Hill touchdown run put the Bulldogs back within striking distance, even after a failed 2-point conversion. 17-12 Hawks.
Well, instead of answering, Ihmir Smith-Marsette proceeded to fumble the ball on the ensuing kick return in a spectacular display of why you probably shouldn’t hurdle.
With the ball on Iowa’s 35, Nick Fitzgerald showed why he holds every QB rushing record in the SEC.
Granted, Iowa’s defenders made it look like he was smothered in Crisco, in what really was a spectacular display of tackling ineptitude. The run gave MSU the lead and all the momentum.
Iowa followed up that scoring drive with a six-play drive of its own that ended with a 27 yard punt, giving State decent field position (which they enjoyed all day due to an overall awful performance by Iowa’s punting unit). BUT Anthony Nelson wouldn’t let AJE hog all the spotlight on New Year’s Day.
His tipped pass to Chauncey Golston gave Iowa a short field to work with. A 12-yarder to Brandon Smith on first down already got Iowa knocking on the door, and 7 and 2 yard gains from ISM and Easley on second and third down gave Kirk Ferentz a decision to make. Within field goal range, Stanley lined up under center on 4th down and scrambled for the first in what looked to a be broken screen intended for TJ Hockenson. Nick Easley, all 5-11, 205 lbs of him then helped throw a nail in the coffin.
Easley was probably Iowa’s MVP today. He had 8 catches for 104 yards and 2 scores in his final game as a Hawkeye and proved to be a true warrior.
Brandon Smith, a Mississippi native who did not receive an offer from MSU threw an instrumental block on that play. This was one of his best games as a Hawkeye, as he caught 3 passes for 33 yards, each catch going for a first down—and two happening on third down.
Iowa and Mississippi State traded field goals in the fourth quarter, but that would be the end of that. The Bulldogs had one last effort, and it looked like a Joe Moorehead-led offense would rip the hearts out of Iowa in the waning seconds of a game once again, but Jake Gervase, all 6-1, 212 lbs of him wasn’t going to let that happen.
Santa had one more gift for Jake Gervase pic.twitter.com/1fmTnGrB0l— On Iowa (@GazetteOnIowa) January 1, 2019
The interception made up for a drop Gervase had earlier in the game. And despite that, he had probably his best game of his career. He had 6 tackles and 3 pass breakups (the last one coming on fourth down on MSU’s final drive) to go along with that pick and anchored a secondary that conceded just 152 yards through the air.
The story of this game really lies on Iowa’s defense and MSU’s lack of discipline. The Bulldogs were flagged 8 times for 90 yards, helping make up for 143-yard deficit in MSU’s favor. Iowa, meanwhile, wasn’t flagged once all game. Nick Fitzgerald was basically useless through the air, and Iowa does pretty well against one-dimensional offenses.
A wins a win and we’ll take it. Iowa hasn’t won consecutive bowl games since a three-game stretch from 2008-10. This is also the first time Iowa has won nine or more games in a season since 2015, and its just the third time its equaled or bettered nine wins in the last 10 years.
This season feels disappointing, sure. Iowa didn’t play pretty. Noah Fant didn’t play at all. TJ Hockenson wasn’t targeted until the fourth quarter and hauled in just 3 passes for 43 yards, though his first two catches went for 20 yards apiece. Nate Stanley showed a healthy dose of the yips after his interception and completed just 1-8 passes following the pick. He ended the day with 214 yards and 3 scores and like I said, was Iowa’s only offense to speak of.
So are we happy? A bowl win over a ranked SEC team to reach nine wins feels pretty OK for now. We can kvetch later. In the meantime, I think there’s an unopened bottle of champagne around here somewhere...