Iowa football: 5 things I want to see from the Hawkeyes in Outback Bowl game
Iowa finishes off a big what-might-have-been season on Tuesday when it takes on Mississippi State in the Outback Bowl in Tampa. It will be an interesting challenge, because the Bulldogs have the No. 1 scoring defense in the country.
Iowa is pretty good themselves, despite its 8-4 record. In the Hawkeyes’ four losses — to Wisconsin, Penn State, Purdue and Northwestern —they had fourth-quarter leads that they couldn’t hang on to. A few breaks here and there — and a few stops at the right time — could have made a huge difference.
And now it all wraps up in the Outback Bowl (Tuesday Noon ET; TV: ESPN2), the Hawkeyes’ sixth trip to the Tamp bow game.
Here are five things I want to see from the Hawkeyes this week against Mississippi State:
1. Iowa’s strong defense keeps Mississippi State confused
Iowa’s defense has been mostly good all year, pitching two shutouts and coming close two other times. As good as Mississippi State’s defense is, points are going to be at a premium in this game and the Hawkeyes will have to win this game with their defense, as well. Mississippi State has four losses as well, but don’t be deceived. This is a very good team, with all four losses coming against ranked teams Alabama, Florida, LSU and Kentucky.
2. The pass rush contains MSU quarterback Nick Fitzgerald
The strength of Iowa’s defense has been its front line, led by Parker Hesse and A.J. Epenesa. They have put pressure on quarterbacks all year, but the big challenge in Tuesday’s bowl game is keeping Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald in the pocket. He’s only a 52 percent passer, but he’s very dangerous with his legs, as well, especially when plays break down. They can’t leave open running gaps for him, and that’s a must-win area there. Fitzgerald has thrown 7 interceptions this season, so forcing some turnovers while he’s throwing on the run will be a good thing, too.
3. QB Nate Stanley attacks No. 1-ranked defense with surprises
Iowa’s offense has struggled a bit at times this season, and quarterback Nate Stanley has been a part of that. On a stern grading scale, he’s probably fallen before expectations this season. But, to be frank, there were other issues as well. The running game has struggled even worse. But with plenty of time to prepare, it will be nice to see some new wrinkles from this offense, and a bit of a devil-may-care attitude may be a nice thing, as well. It’s a bowl game, so let’s see the whole bag of tricks, because just running at this No. 1-ranked defense isn’t going to work consistently.
4. Iowa’s sputtering running game finds a groove
But the running game does have to deliver here and there. It’s been interesting to watch the progression of junior college transfer running back Mekhi Sargent this season. Since he’s become the go-to running back in the rotation, he’s been great. He had 121 yards on 17 carries against Illinois in Week 12 and was sensational a week later against Nebraska, when he rushed for 173 yards on 26 carries, both season highs. It’s going to be a challenge against the Bulldogs, but breaking a run or two would sure help.
5. Getting a 9th win validates a season of near-misses
There’s a good case to be made that this matchup of 8-4 teams could have easily been 10-2 teams, since both of these teams let a few chances slip away this season. These are good teams. In Iowa’s case, the optimists will argue that this team could have been 12-0. They’ve been kicking themselves all season for how late leads slipped away against Wisconsin, Purdue, Penn State and Northwestern. So winning a ninth game — especially against a quality opponent — would be big.