Leistikow: 5 reasons to like Iowa's chances against Florida
IOWA CITY, Ia. — The Iowa football team scored big Sunday with its invitation to face Florida in the Jan. 2 Outback Bowl.
Next question: Which team scores, period, in the noon CT, ABC-televised game in Tampa, Fla.?
This could be like watching two Cy Young Award winners facing a minor-league batting order — stingy defenses vs. dingy offenses.
“It’ll probably be in the 40s then," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz quipped, "... like an arena game."
Florida’s defense is one of the best in college football; sixth out of 128 FBS teams. Its offense is one of the worst; No. 115 nationally.
Iowa’s defense — which buckled down to allow just 7.7 points a game during its season-ending three-game win streak over Michigan, Illinois and Nebraska — is ranked 24th. Its offense is ranked even lower than Florida’s: No. 120.
If there ever was a chance to have another 6-4 final score under Ferentz, like in 2004 against Penn State, this would be the game.
"Both of us, I’m sure, will spend the next couple weeks trying to figure out a way to move the ball," Ferentz said, this time in all seriousness, "and see if we can score some points.”
The early favorite for Iowa MVP in the game might be all-Big Ten punter Ron Coluzzi.
Considering the previous two Outback Bowls involving these two teams came down to key special-teams plays, maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise.
On Jan. 1, 2004, it was Matt Melloy’s blocked punt and recovery for a touchdown that turned that game into a Hawkeye 37-17 rout.
Two years later, it was the controversial offsides penalty called against Iowa that erased an onside-kick recovery to seal a 31-24 Florida win.
Frankly, though, this is about as good of an opportunity Iowa could have asked for. Here are five reasons why.
A chance to take down the SEC
Ferentz has a 3-3 record in bowl games against the Southeastern Conference. It used to be 3-1.
That was before the Jan. 1, 2014 Outback Bowl, when the Hawkeyes fell behind LSU 14-0 at halftime and lost, 21-14.
Then in the Jan. 2, 2015 TaxSlayer Bowl, Tennessee — well, you know what the Volunteers did to the Hawkeyes that day. It was 42-7 in the third quarter, 45-28 to end the game, and Jake Rudock was off to Michigan during the longest offseason ever.
Fans of the Big Ten and SEC often spat about which conference is better; this year, a lot of national folks are siding with the Big Ten. Iowa has a chance to carry the league banner against the SEC East champs while also avenging painful recent history.
A chance at 4-0 vs. Appleby
After starting quarterback Luke Del Rio got hurt, Florida’s offense finished the season behind Austin Appleby. If that name sounds familiar, it should.
Appleby faced Iowa three times in his career before he left Purdue for Florida as a graduate transfer. Although he didn’t start any of those games, all Hawkeye wins, he has attempted 52 passes against Iowa.
Most recently, he came on in relief during the post-blizzard game in Iowa City, as Iowa pulled away for a 40-20 win to clinch the 2015 Big Ten West title.
Appleby was Florida’s only offense in a 52-16 SEC title-game loss to Alabama on Saturday — completing 26 of 39 passes for 261 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions.
Behind Appleby, there’s a little groundswell for Florida coach Jim McElwain to burn the redshirt of highly touted true freshman Feleipe Franks in the bowl game. McElwain hasn't totally dismissed the idea.
A chance for Akrum’s 1,000
Although criticism of Iowa’s offense has been pretty steady, the Hawkeyes’ run blocking was actually quite good down the stretch.
And if offensive coordinator Greg Davis is looking for a soft spot against the Gators’ tough defense, it’s up front. Florida’s rush defense is still good, but it does allow 142.3 yards a game — 36th in the country.
Florida doesn’t allow much of anything through the air — No. 3 in FBS, at 156.3 yards a game. But it’s not like Iowa’s been passing much lately anyway (C.J. Beathard averaged 17 attempts during his three-game win streak).
All that could be a positive sign, considering the recent Hawkeye game plan of ground and pound. Wadley needs just 34 rushing yards to join LeShun Daniels Jr. (1,013) as the first Iowa running-back duo to top 1,000 in the same season.
"I know we're going to run the ball," senior tight end George Kittle said, "I love running the ball."
A chance for defensive vindication
Iowa has given up 45 points in each of its last two bowl games.
Bo Bower, Josey Jewell and Ben Niemann, junior starting linebackers now, have been on the field as freshmen and sophomores in both of those bloodbaths.
The Raymond James Stadium stage provides a great opportunity to wash out some of the stain from forgettable losses to Tennessee and Stanford.
"I feel like our team is on the right track," said senior cornerback Desmond King, who will be starting his fourth straight bowl game but has never won one. "Our mind is focused."
As if that motivation wasn't enough, there's more good news. The Gators’ plodding offense has gotten even worse as the season has progressed.
Since Oct. 29 — despite a 3-3 record — Florida averaged just 16.5 points, 77.8 rushing yards and 263.7 total yards per game.
A chance to finish 2008 narrative
It’s almost eerie to see how closely the 2016 Hawkeye team’s path has followed 2008’s.
Disappointing early-season losses. A road loss after entering the bye week 5-3. Beating an unbeaten, top-five team to start a three-game November winning streak, then trouncing a rival to finish it.
So of course, Iowa is heading to the Outback Bowl — like it did after the 2008 regular season.
Those Hawkeyes ripped apart South Carolina, 31-10, behind an overpowering ground game.
It would be fitting if the 2016 Hawkeyes were to wrap up this season with an equally gratifying bow.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.