Howe: Outback Bowl a Textbook Hawkeye Victory

January 1, 2019

Written by Rob Howe

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TAMPA, Fla. – If you were trying to explain to someone who never saw Iowa football play what it was about, you could show him or her the replay of Tuesday’s Outback Bowl. While it’s not always esthetically pleasing, it’s more often than not effective.

The Hawkeyes couldn’t run the ball, totaling minus-15 yards on the ground. The passing game and special teams performed a bit better than that. The defense stood out. They needed it. Complementary football won out.

Iowa knew yards would be hard to come by against Mississippi State’s stingy defense, which was leading the country by allowing just 12.0 points a game. It just needed to deliver enough plays on offense to complement its defense. That’s what it did.

A touchdown underdog, the Hawkeyes overcame in-game adversity to tough out a 27-22 victory against No. 18 Mississippi State here at Raymond James Stadium. Oh, and a pair of former walk-ons delivered signature performances.

That’s Iowa.

Game MVP Nick Easley (8 catches, 104 yards, two touchdowns) stood out on offense. Safety Jake Gervase (six tackles, three pass breakups, interception) showed out for a group of about 80 family member and friends sitting in the stands.

Those two seniors are the type of stories that make Iowa football what it is. It’s not a roster made up exclusively of players few others wanted. Five-star defensive end A.J. Epenesa is pretty good, as he showed again Tuesday. The mutts and the purebreds live in harmony.

Neither Easley or Gervase held Division I offers coming out of high school. D-II Missouri Western offered Easley a scholarship as a receiver. It also wanted him to punt. Northern Iowa didn’t even recruit Gervase.

“It’s illustrative of how we’re built. We have other guys highly recruited and other guys that worked their way and proven that they deserve to play at this level and it’s all about being given an opportunity,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.

“The work is done by the players. Nick is a great illustration of that, and you know, Jake, the same way. He wanted an opportunity, came and went to work like everybody else.”

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It didn’t look good for Iowa early on Tuesday. It finished the first quarter with -8 yards of offense and trailed 6-0. There was no panic, however. This gritty bunch just dug in a little deeper. A cocky group Bulldogs aided its cause.

Veteran MSU players taunted younger Hawkeyes during the teams’ children hospital visit down here last week. The Bulldogs must have missed the world-wide story about the Wave or just decided it was a good idea to poke the bear.

“They were talking a little crap. I think that put a little fuel in the fire,” Gervase said. “We weren’t going to give into it. We knew that if we came out and competed and played our asses off, we’d be able to win this game. I think we did that at the end of sixty minutes.”

MSU’s dominant first quarter must have fueled its SEC arrogance. Up 6-0 early in the second quarter, it stopped the Hawkeyes deep in their own end. But, instead of receiving a punt, the Bulldogs picked up a taunting penalty. It breathed life into Iowa, which chipped away during the drive and cut the lead in half on a Miguel Recinos (another former walk-on) 44-yard field goal.

“From what I heard, I felt disrespected. I heard they weren’t watching film (of Iowa), or something like that. I’m pretty sure they’ll watch film next bowl game of whoever they play,” Hawkeye receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette said.

On the next Bulldog possession, Iowa forced a punt. On the first play, quarterback Nate Stanley connected with Easley on a 75-yard touchdown pass. MSU triple-covered all-American tight end T.J. Hockenson, leaving the Newton native one-on-one with the corner. The Hawkeyes led, 10-6 with 8:06 left in the second quarter.

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It was then time for Epenesa to shine. His strip sack recovered by teammate Chauncey Golston set Iowa up at Bulldog 13. Two plays later, Stanley hit Smith-Marsette with a touchdown pass.

Complementary football.

The Hawkeyes led 17-6 at halftime.

Iowa experienced a nightmarish start coming out of the break. Stanley threw an interception returned deep into Hawkeye territory and Smith-Marsette fumbled the ensuing kickoff, setting up a pair of MSU touchdowns. The Hawkeyes trailed, 19-17, with 11:20 left in the third quarter.

Iowa didn’t get anything going on its next drive and punted. The Bulldogs started moving the ball and the Hawkeyes’ needed a play. Defensive end Anthony Nelson and Golston provided it.

Nelson batted a pass up in the air. Golston caught it, setting up the offense at the MSU 32. Six plays later, Stanley hit Easley for an eight-yard touchdown. The Hawkeyes led 24-19 with 4:39 left in the third quarter.

Complementary football working again.

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“We weren’t really worried. Some stuff had happened but we understood that with the way we were playing offensively and defensively, we were going to come out with a win. We just kept pounding them and they finally broke,” Nelson said.

After an Iowa punt, the Bulldogs completed a 51-yard pass down to the Hawkeye one. The defense delivered again, forcing a field goal.

The Hawkeyes were forced to punt again on their next possession. Another big pass play helped set up MSU at the opponent’s 20. Gervase ended the march with an interception.

The former Davenport Assumption standout looked like he might not be in this position as recently as last season. He was behind Brandon Snyder on the depth chart and they were in the same grade. Snyder suffered a pair of torn ACLs and eventually transferred.

“I knew that if I worked my tail off, day in and day out, and was a good leader, I’d get an opportunity. And if I didn’t get an opportunity then I wouldn’t have any regret because I did everything I could,” Gervase said.

Iowa turned Gervase’s pick into a Recinos’ field goal and a 27-22 lead. The Hawkeye defense shut down MSU from there. The Black and Gold finished at 9-4 after its second consecutive bowl win.

This team earned a reputation for not being able to win close games in its four losses. But it learned. It pulled out victories in the regular-season finale against Nebraska and again on Tuesday. It grew and came together. That showed here.

“We never put our heads down when the turnovers happened. The defense came over and told us they were going to handle it. We have a team with so much heart and camaraderie. It’s cool to go out there and play no matter what happens,” Smith-Marsette said.

The Hawkeyes also halted a two-game skid in this bowl. The last time they won here, after the ’08 season against South Carolina, they followed it with an 11-2 campaign and a victory in the Orange Bowl.

“We want to continue to grow and build,” Stanley said. “Really, the sky is the limit if you just come and improve yourself every day.”

Tuesday’s showing served as a step in the right direction.

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