Iowa football: Grading the Hawkeyes after Outback Bowl win over Mississippi State
Iowa went out an played an outstanding game against Mississippi State Tuesday in winning the Outback Bowl 27-22. As 7-point underdogs, this is a nice upset victory for the Hawkeyes, who were playing against the No. 1-ranked scoring defense in the country, but still managed five nice scoring drives.
There was a lot to like about this bowl win, probably their biggest and most important since the Orange Bowl defeat of Georgia Tech back after the 2009 season. That team finished No. 7 in the country after going 11-2.
Here’s what I liked — but mostly what I didn’t like — about the Hawkeyes’ win over the Bulldogs:
What I liked
Iowa’s defense goes out in style with three turnovers
Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald can be a handful, especially when he’s on the run. The proof is in the numbers as the SEC’s all-time leading rusher from the position. But he’s also been prone to make mistakes, and Iowa forced three turnovers on Tuesday, two interceptions and a fumble that all led to points in the Hawkeyes’ big win. This defense has been very good for most of this year, and they picked a great way to go out in style. Hanging tough down the stretch was nice to see, too. There were plenty of great individual efforts, but Anthony Nelson (2.5 sacks), Jake Gervase (interception, 3 pass-breakups) and Matt Hankins (team-leading 9 tackles) stood out.
Nate Stanley throws 3 touchdown passes
In the face of a treacherous pass rush practically all day long, Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley stood tall in the pocket and made plays when he had to. He threw for 214 yards and three touchdowns, finding Nick Easley twice for scores and Ihmir Smith-Marsette the other time. Easley, the game’s MVP, was great, catching 8 passes for 104 yards, and his 75-yard score was an Iowa bowl game record. Stanley deserves a lot of credit for showing patience, too, because when Mississippi State took away his favorite target, Mackey Award-winning tight end T.J. Hockenson, he didn’t try to force things. They didn’t hook up until late in the fourth quarter, but when they did — with three receptions for 43 yards — it helped seal the deal. It was a very professional effort from Stanley.
Finding a way to win a close one at the end
This 9-4 season could have been so much better for the Hawkeyes, and it was nice to see them finally win a big game at the end on Tuesday. The four losses will haunt them forever, because all four could have been victories. The losses to Wisconsin, Penn State, Purdue and Northwestern were all there for the taking, and any — or all — of the four could have been victories. This easily could have been a 10- or 11-win season, so at least ending it on a high note was a positive sign.
What I didn’t like
Running game was completely non-existent
Granted, Mississippi State has a slew of future first-round draft picks in its front seven, but for Iowa to have 20 carries that added up to minus-15 yards is a downright embarrassment. They had only one run for more than 3 yards — and that was only 5 yards. The only thing good about it was that the Hawkeyes remained persistent in trying to run, and that meant that play-action passes still worked. The Bulldogs bit often enough to break some big plays in the passing game.
Converting on third down also an empty wasteland
The Hawkeyes struck early enough for it not to be a problem, because they converted only 1 of 11 third-down attempts all day. Mississippi State made that tough, doubling Hockenson every time and sending all sorts of blitzers. They definitely missed fellow tight end Noah Fant, who would have been a great second option. Fant sat out the game to prepare for the NFL Draft. “They were doubling. They have all year. It wasn’t a huge deal,” Hockenson said. “The first quarter, we realized they were doubling us coming out. You don’t want (Stanley) to throw into a double team, so he kind of stopped looking at me, looking off of me. That makes sense. Other guys got open.”