Leistikow: 4 lessons the Hawkeyes can learn from their last Outback Bowl to win this one
TAMPA, Fla. — The indelible image of Iowa’s most recent Outback Bowl appearance was C.J. Beathard playing through a pulled hamstring, hobbling to chase down a Florida defender who had intercepted one of his many doomed second-half passes. Of course, ESPN announcer Ed Cunningham’s in-game comments attacking Iowa’s coaches for not benching Beathard magnified how badly that Jan. 2, 2017, game unraveled for the Hawkeyes.
The final score was Florida 30, Iowa 3.
It was an ugly, forgettable day.
But there are good history lessons to be learned from what transpired here two years ago at Raymond James Stadium — and they can be applied to Tuesday’s 11 a.m. CT, ESPN2-televised game between 8-4 Iowa and 8-4, 18th-ranked Mississippi State.
Lesson No. 1: Score by sevens, not threes
It’s revisionist history to say the Hawkeyes were overmatched two years ago at Raymond James Stadium. The truth is, it was a 3-3 game midway in the second quarter, and Iowa was on the verge of punching in a go-ahead score.
On fourth-and-goal from the Florida 1-yard line, Kirk Ferentz decided to go for it. The handoff to LeShun Daniels Jr. had no chance and was stuffed for a loss of 2 yards. It was bad execution and a bad play call, one of the last Greg Davis would make as Iowa’s offensive coordinator. He retired a few days later.
"The biggest takeaway I’ve got is just finish those drives, because you never know what’s going to happen after that,” said Iowa senior center Keegan Render, one of the few current Hawkeyes to be in the two-deep back then. “They got the stop, it kind of deflated us, and it kind of snowballed.”
Brian Ferentz has been ultra-aggressive in the red zone in his two years as offensive coordinator, often going to the air instead of the ground to score touchdowns. Considering Mississippi State’s scoring defense is No. 1 nationally at 12.0 points per game, it might be tempting to take three points — especially considering what happened two years ago.
But the Hawkeyes, seven-point underdogs, can’t afford to settle for Miguel Recinos' kicks. It’s unlikely they’ll get a lot of red-zone trips — meaning they have to take full advantage of them. That means going for seven.
Lesson No. 2: Play through the whistle
It’s going to be hot Tuesday, with temperatures expected to reach 80 degrees. It’ll be Iowa’s warmest-weather game since the blazing season opener against Northern Illinois.
When it’s hot, it can be tempting to give up on a play that seems to be over to reserve some energy. But there’s no better reminder of how costly any letup can be than what happened two years ago at the end of the first half against Florida.
Iowa had the Gators pinned back at their 15-yard line in a 3-3 game with 122 seconds left in the first half. It looked like the Hawkeyes would reach halftime in good shape. Then, a simple screen pass to running back Mark Thompson changed everything.
Six different Hawkeyes missed tackles on a no-frills play, and Thompson zoomed to an Outback Bowl-record 85-yard touchdown reception. Suddenly, it was 10-3 at halftime, and Iowa was on the ropes.
Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald is the type of guy that could spring free for a big-gainer if Iowa defenders aren't fully engaged through the end of every play. He’s tough to bring down, meaning multiple Hawkeyes need to swarm to the football. Running backs Kylin Hill and Aeris Williams, both 215 pounds, each average more than six yards per carry. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker is also worried about game-breaking plays from Mississippi State receivers, too — Stephen Guidry (6-foot-4, 190 pounds) and Osirus Mitchell (6-5, 210) are the two main targets.
“Their outside guys, their skill guys — they’re big; they’re fast,” Parker said. “That really scares you.”
Iowa has better defensive depth than it did two years ago, so Parker can’t be afraid to substitute fresh bodies to help keep his guys rested ... and relentless.
Lesson No. 3: Protect the quarterback and the football
Two years ago, Beathard was sacked three times and threw three interceptions. Those negative plays shaped the loss.
This Mississippi State defense is even more stingy, more dangerous. The Bulldogs have one of the best pass rushers in the country in defensive end Montez Sweat (he wears No. 9), who will typically be matched up against Iowa’s best pass protector in right tackle Tristan Wirfs.
The offensive line needs to protect Nate Stanley from rushing his throws. And Stanley must be crisp with his accuracy. There won’t be many wide-open windows against a hounding Mississippi State secondary, but Stanley’s thumb injury shouldn’t be as much of an issue as it was down the regular-season stretch.
This will be one of the most challenging days Brian Ferentz has faced as a play-caller, especially with first-team all-Big Ten Conference tight end Noah Fant skipping the game.
“For us to be successful, we need to … find a way to do things that we do and have some success on early downs,” Ferentz said. “Hopefully get us in position to be successful on later downs.”
The magic number Ferentz aims for on first down is four yards. Second-and-6 gives him better options than second-and-10. Keep an eye on that number Tuesday.
Lesson No. 4: Don't let the opportunity slip away
Iowa fell out of the national rankings after that Florida loss. Iowa owns winning records in seven of its last eight seasons, but only one final top-25 ranking (in 2015). If they win Tuesday, they'll no doubt change that.
Both teams come into this game with strong cultures and plenty of motivation. The Bulldogs are trying to prove they’re one of the best 8-4 teams in the country and play hard for their first-year coach in Joe Moorhead. The Hawkeyes are equally motivated, feeling like they were more befitting of a 10-2 season than 8-4.
Players might know before we do how this is going to unfold.
“Half of these bowl games are done within a half hour,” Render said. “Because you know which team was ready to play and which team isn’t. That’s the biggest thing, I think. Be ready to go and be into it.”
Head coach Kirk Ferentz has given his team a history lesson heading into this one. Only 14 previous Hawkeye teams have won at least nine games. He’s trying to sell his players on the idea that they could be the 15th.
“To win nine (or) 10 or anything above eight is certainly kind of a landmark deal,” he said. “So that’s a big thing.”
This should be a low-scoring, 60-minute fight to the finish. The Hawkeyes are going to have to make more clutch plays than they did in their four tight losses to pull out the win.
We'll find out if they can soon. Game time is almost here.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.