By Todd Brommelkamp/KGYM Radio
TAMPA – Sometimes a team’s greatest strength turns out to be its biggest weakness.
What most of the world saw from the Iowa football team in the first 15 minutes of Tuesday’s Outback Bowl was offensive futility against one of the nation’s top-ranked defensive units.
Iowa, however, saw opportunity.
Mississippi State was being aggressive on defense, smothering Iowa’s ground game and pressuring quarterback Nate Stanley.
But the Bulldogs were a little too aggressive and the Hawkeyes knew it. Opportunity would present itself when the time was right.
So, while the rest of the world watched Iowa finish the first quarter with minus-8 yards in total offense and comparisons began to grow with the Hawks’ last trip to Tampa – a 30-3 egg-laying against Florida two years ago – Iowa stuck to its game plan.
When the Bulldogs became even more aggressive in the second quarter, fortune struck in the form of a 75-yard touchdown pass from Nate Stanley to Nick Easley.
“They kind of bit on that a little, the play fake,” Easley said. “Luckily Nate was able to find me. He did a really good job by him seeing me down the seam and put a really good ball on me.”
Momentum was in Iowa’s favor at that point with a 10-6 lead and the Hawks kept it on the ensuing drive when A. J. Epenesa forced a fumble that was recovered by teammate Chauncey Golston at the Mississippi State 13-yard line.
Two plays later the Hawks were in the end zone again when Stanley found Ihmir Smith-Marsette for a 15-yard score.
How improbable was that particular turn of events? In the span of about a minute and a 37 seconds the Hawkeyes managed to do something no other team had done against the Bulldogs all season. Mississippi State arrived in Tampa having not surrendered more than a single touchdown pass in its previous 12 games.
With a 17-6 halftime lead (Iowa’s first in a bowl game since the 2010 Orange Bowl) it looked like the Hawkeyes were headed toward victory. They were, but a few detours presented themselves along the way.
Stanley threw an interception on Iowa’s opening drive of the third quarter and the Bulldogs flipped it into six points, failing to convert on a 2-point attempt that would have made the score 17-14 in favor of Iowa. Things then went from bad to worse when Smith-Marsette fumbled the kick return. Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald broke off a 33 yard run on the very next play of the game and the Bulldogs were leading 19-17.
In 18 seconds things had blown up in Iowa’s face.
“That’s the worst possible thing we could have done, obviously,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. “And those were two ugly plays, quite frankly.
“We were doing some really good things and (it) couldn’t have gone any worse, but that’s where I think the resilience of our football team really showed.”
Iowa would go on to retake the lead, 24-19, near the end of the quarter when Stanley reconnected with Easley for the duo’s second touchdown of the day. The Hawks held the Bulldogs to a field goal in the final quarter of play, though Mississippi State had an opportunity to grab the lead once more with just under nine minutes left to play.
Down 24-22, the Bulldogs drove to the Iowa 20, where kicker Jace Christmann would have been in position to at least put up three points had Fitzgerald not been picked off in the end zone by Iowa’s Jake Gervase.
“It was being in the right place at the right time,” Gervase said. “They had a good pass concept going there against our defense and sometimes you get lucky.”
The Hawkeyes had just the right combination of luck and skill to beat the Bulldogs Tuesday, especially given MSU’s top-ranked defense. Mississippi State out-gained Iowa 342 yards to 199 and the Hawks finished the game with minus-15 rushing yards.
“From our perspective there were too many things and too many missed opportunities throughout the course of the game that we didn’t capitalize on,” Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead said.
The Bulldogs were whistled for 8 penalties that accounted for 90 yards, perhaps none bigger than a second quarter holding penalty that negated a 51 yard pass that would have left the Bulldogs at the Iowa 2-yard line.
“We definitely beat ourselves, they weren’t better than us,” said MSU receiver Osirus Mitchell, whose reception was wiped clean by the hold. “We just beat ourselves and weren’t executing the best we could.”
Iowa, meanwhile, had a game plan and kept plugging away.
Stanley completed his first eight passes, finishing the game 21-of-31 for 241 yards and three touchdowns.
“We knew we had to ride through the ups and downs,” Stanley said. “We didn’t get discouraged at all and just kept going.”
That perseverance helped the Hawkeyes wrap up a 9-win campaign, marking the seventh time in Ferentz’s 20-year tenure the Hawks have reached that mark.
“We face adversity and we come back from it,” tight end T. J. Hockenson said after the game. “That’s the biggest thing and it shows character.”
Hockenson, defensive back Amani Hooker and defensive lineman Anthony Nelson all held off on announcing their future plans after the game, choosing to bask in the glow of a bowl win with teammates than grab the spotlight by announcing their NFL Draft intentions.
If this proves to be the final game for any of the three in an Iowa uniform, it will have been a memorable one.
“It was a hard-fought game and we were back and forth but we were able to get the stop in the end, which we hadn’t done previously,” Nelson said. “It just feels so good to get a bowl victory to end the year on and get a close victory.”