It is said that revenge is a dish best served cold. If that’s true, the Iowa Hawkeye football program is hoping to gift the USC Trojans a platter full of ice when they face off against them in Holiday Bowl on Friday night.
Most of Iowa’s players likely have no memory of the last time the Hawkeye and Trojans met in a bowl game, but Iowa’s coaching staff has not forgotten. Kirk Ferentz, his son Brian, and assistant coaches Phil Parker, Ken O’Keefe, and Chris Doyle were all with the program when one of the best Hawkeye teams in recent memory suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the Trojans during the 2003 Orange Bowl. There was no shame in losing to an excellent USC squad led by Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer and future NFL Hall of Famer Troy Polamalu, but Iowa’s lifeless performance in the second half of that game left a sour taste in fans’ mouths which has not abated over the past sixteen years, and it’s tough to imagine that Iowa’s coaching staff feels any differently.
Iowa’s rematch against USC will present fans with a clash of civilizations that goes beyond a bunch of pale corn-fed Midwesterners having to coexist with the bronzed Southern Cal faithful in the stands of SDCCU Stadium. Iowa’s balanced pro-style offense and physical bend-but-don’t-break defense will seek to overcome a pass-happy Trojan squad with an aggressive defense that isn’t afraid to make a gamble or two in pursuit of a big play. If Kirk Ferentz and the Hawkeyes hope to get their revenge on USC, they will have to get past the discomfort that comes with playing a team whose style of football is diametrically opposed to their own. Each coaching staff will attempt to dictate the flow of the game to fit their own stylistic profile, and while Iowa is more comfortable beating the Trojans in a pitch battle as opposed to a track meet, the Hawkeyes will need to display competence in both disciplines if they want to leave San Diego with a win.
Here are a few key factors to watch for in Friday night’s game:
1. Can Iowa’s secondary weather the storm of USC’s passing attack?
Iowa’s pass defense has been the strength of the unit for most of the season. The Hawkeyes surrender an average of only 184.2 yards per game, hold opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of 113.08, and have allowed only twelve passing touchdowns while picking off eleven passes. Cornerback Michael Ojemudia and safety Geno Stone were both excellent in pass coverage and earned spots on various All-Conference teams, while Matt Hankins, Jack Koerner, and Riley Moss each made their share of standout plays throughout the season.
However, Iowa’s pass defense has not been without its warts. While the Hawkeyes held nine of their opponents under 200 yards passing, they also surrendered over 300 yards against Minnesota, Purdue, and Iowa State, three teams which boast fast, athletic wide receivers and quarterbacks willing to take frequent shots downfield.
USC certainly fits that mold. Tyler Vaughns, Amon-Ra St. Brown, and Michael Pittman Jr. compose arguably the most talented wide receiving corps the Hawkeyes have faced this season, and combined for 23 touchdowns and nearly 3,000 receiving yards. Iowa struggled mightily to contain Purdue’s David Bell and Minnesota’s Tyler Johnson, and USC’s wide outs are at least as dangerous downfield as those two players, if not more.
USC also has a talented quarterback who excels at getting the ball into the hands of his top targets. Kedon Slovis may be a freshman, but he has been a revelation in offensive coordinator Graham Harrell’s offense, completing over 70% of his passes and throwing for 3242 yards and 28 touchdowns to only 9 interceptions. Slovis is hyper-efficient and makes smart decisions with the ball, but is also accurate when throwing downfield even if he lacks the elite arm strength that has typified the quarterback position at USC in recent decades. Only five teams have passed for more yards on the season than the Trojans have, and Slovis’ excellent play has been the leading driver of USC’s aerial renaissance.
Stopping USC’s passing game is a tall order, and Iowa’s defensive backs will bear the brunt of this duty. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker has had a few weeks to analyze the Trojan’s passing attack and coach up his players to stay with their men in coverage, and Iowa’s historic success at disrupting opposing offenses during bowl games says that the Hawkeye coaches will have the right scheme in place Friday night. Whether Iowa’s D backs can execute this game plan, stick with USC’s talented receivers, and prevent big plays downfield or after the catch is another story entirely, and will likely determine whether the Hawkeyes can keep the Trojan offense in check.
Fortunately for Iowa, pass defense is a team effort. Iowa’s best chance at slowing down the USC passing game is to generate a consistent pass rush with its front four and drop its linebackers into coverage to minimize the number of times Iowa’s cornerbacks are required to cover USC receivers one-on-one. The Holiday Bowl will likely be A.J. Epenesa’s final game in the black and gold, and if he can continue to play at the exceptionally high level he’s shown in recent games, it could put Iowa’s defensive backs in a position to create turnovers. USC is winless on the season when it loses the turnover battle by two or more takeaways, so a few interceptions would go a long way towards securing and Iowa victory.
2. Can Iowa impose its will on the ground?
USC isn’t a complete stranger to competing against pro style offensive attacks – the Trojans are in the same conference as Stanford, after all. However, Iowa’s style of play is certainly an oddity in the Pac 12, and USC has proven vulnerable to strong running games in the past. The Trojans allow an average of 4.58 yards per carry and have been particularly bad away from home, surrendering ten rushing touchdowns and nearly 4.9 yards per carry outside the Coliseum.
But just how strong is the Iowa running game? The Hawkeyes average only four yards per run, and while Tyler Goodson has provided a spark to Iowa’s ground attack, concerns about the team’s run blocking remain. Iowa’s interior offensive line has been a source of difficulty for much of the season, and DTs Marlon Tuipulotu and Jay Tufele happen to be the strength of the Trojan defense. Add in the excellent play of linebacker John Houston Jr. and the threat of hard-hitting safety Talanoa Hufanga creeping into the box and there is plenty of cause for concern about Iowa’s ability to run the ball effectively against the Trojans.
If the Hawkeyes can get their ground game going, however, it bodes extremely well for their chances of victory. USC tends to lose when it struggles to stop the run, and gave up an average of 192.75 yards per game in its four losses this season. If Goodson can pop off a few big runs, something to which the Trojans have occasionally been susceptible this season, Iowa’s ground game can stress the Trojan defense, control the pace of the game, and keep the ball out of the hands of the potent USC offense.
3. Can Nate Stanley end his Hawkeye career on a high note?
Nate Stanley is the kind of player that many Iowa fans will appreciate more in hindsight than they did during his time in college. His career numbers (over 8,000 passing yards, a nearly 3:1 touchdown: interception ratio, 26 career wins as a starter) rank among the best in program history, and his 2-0 record in bowl games and perfect records against rivals Iowa State, Minnesota, and Nebraska should not be overlooked. The combination of Stanley’s enormous arm talent and spotty accuracy has made him maddening to watch at times, but at the end of the day, you can’t argue with the results.
The Holiday Bowl presents Stanley with one final opportunity to solidify his Hawkeye legacy and fortify his draft position before he heads to the NFL. Fortunately for him, USC’s pass defense has proven quite vulnerable this season, as the Trojans have allowed 22 total passing touchdowns and nearly 250 yards in the air each game. Iowa is counting on its senior quarterback to make plays against USC’s young and inexperienced secondary. If he can live up to his promise and replicate his strong performance from last year’s Outback Bowl, Iowa should be in good shape. If not, the Hawkeyes may struggle to keep pace with USC’s dynamic passing attack.
Iowa is finally in a position to avenge it's Orange Bowl loss to USC. Here's hoping they can make that happen.