Leistikow: Iowa's imperfect season gets a 'storybook' finish in Outback Bowl
TAMPA, Fla. — The game was won. Jake Gervase was about to swarm off the football field with his teammates for the last time as an Iowa Hawkeye. But his family and friends, some 90 of them in the first few rows of Section 122 at Raymond James Stadium, were beckoning him to come back over.
The fifth-year senior figured: Why not?
“Screw it, I’m a senior. I’m not going to get in trouble,” he said with a wide smile. “What’s coach Ferentz going to do, put me on the bottom of the depth chart?”
So, he raced over to the other people nearest and dearest to his heart and jumped into the stands.
Gervase received a hero’s welcome. He hugged his mom, his family.
“Kind of a storybook ending,” he said, “for my career in the black and gold.”
That snapshot captured the essence of Iowa’s improbable 27-22 Outback Bowl upset of No. 18 Mississippi State.
Gervase, a former walk-on, experienced his share of highs and lows over a five-year career. The same could be said about the Hawkeyes' experience over four quarters Tuesday.
And in the end: They shut up the cowbells. And they finished the fight.
“We were going to have to find a way, no matter what it was,” an emotional Kirk Ferentz said after watching his team complete a 9-4 season. “… And that’s the essence of team football.”
This game had a little bit of everything.
It certainly had plenty of weirdness.
The Hawkeyes gained a season-low 199 yards; they rushed for a net of minus-15. Their only rushing first down came on a fourth-and-1 quarterback scramble by Nate Stanley.
Twice, they handed Mississippi State golden field position with turnovers, both of which turned into third-quarter touchdowns.
Yet … they won. How?
Just say somehow.
“It was probably the most unorthodox win I’ve ever been a part of,” fifth-year senior Keegan Render said.
For a month, players and coaches stressed the importance of finishing this 2018 season with a victory. They wanted to become the seventh Ferentz team out of 20 to reach the nine-win mark — and, when the final polls come out, be the seventh Ferentz team to finish in the national top 25. They wanted to get a signature win during a season that so far had lacked one.
So, there was plenty of motivation.
But a little extra couldn’t hurt.
During a bowl-coordinated hospital visit earlier this week, some of Iowa’s younger players — including walk-ons and off-the-depth chart guys — got sent along with some of Mississippi State’s elite defensive players. Let's just say the interactions were feisty.
Whatever trash talk was thrown Iowa's way turned into bulletin-board material.
“When you’ve got a group of All-Americans, quote-unquote … talking crap to first-year players at a hospital visit, I think it put a little bit of fuel in the fire for us,” Gervase said. “We came out, executed our gameplan and fought for the full 60.”
The full 60 included staying in the game during a completely one-sided first quarter. (Iowa was held to minus-8 yards but somehow trailed only 6-0.)
The full 60 included a remarkable and unexpected binge of 17 second-quarter points. (Nick Easley’s 75-yard touchdown catch was the longest play the Bulldogs’ No. 1-ranked defense had allowed all year.)
The full 60 included those two costly turnovers and 13 gift-wrapped points to start the third quarter. (Mississippi State went in front, 19-17.)
But most importantly, the full 60 meant a defense hanging on for dear life (and making clutch plays) in the fourth quarter.
“We stuck together,” junior defensive back Amani Hooker said. “And we fought.”
After Iowa jumped back in front 24-19 on Easley’s second touchdown catch, Mississippi State was in prime position for two fourth-quarter touchdowns.
Instead, the Bulldogs emerged with only three points.
A 51-yard pass from Nick Fitzgerald to Stephen Guidry put Mississippi State at Iowa’s 1-yard line for a first-and-goal with 14 minutes left.
The next three plays went backward.
Anthony Nelson stuffed Fitzgerald for a 1-yard loss. Then he and fifth-year senior Parker Hesse stuffed him for another loss. Then on third-and-goal, Gervase and fifth-year senior Matt Nelson stuffed Fitzgerald yet again. The Bulldogs settled for a field goal.
It was a goal-line stand of grit, toughness and determination.
“We just looked at each other and (said), ‘This is what we came here to do. This is where we have to put our foot down,” Anthony Nelson said.
But their work wasn’t done.
After a three-and-out and short punt, Mississippi State reached Iowa’s 20. Now, a mere field goal would put the Bulldogs in front. Fitzgerald again threw to Guidry. The pass hit him in the hands but popped out.
Guess who was there?
Gervase, who was beaten on the play, stuck with it. (Notice a theme?) He caught the ball in the end zone, probably 10 yards in front of his family and friends, and returned it to the Iowa 28.
“Right place at the right time,” Gervase said. “They ran a good pass concept against the defense we were in. I got beat inside, but (Hooker) did a really good job of getting underneath to make it a tougher throw for their quarterback.
“It’s crazy how things work out. Nine times out of 10, that’s going to be a touchdown for those guys.”
Iowa turned the Gervase pick into three more points, and the defense held from there.
Mississippi State’s final pass attempt on fourth-and-5 from Iowa’s 32?
Batted away by Gervase.
The celebration, including his Tampa leap, ensued.
The Hawkeyes got their ninth win. Their signature win. They'll get their top-25 ranking.
Done, done and ... job well done.
“We didn’t do everything we wanted to this year. We fell short a couple times," Render said. "But the way we handled things, the way we bounced back instills how the leadership in the small senior class came together.
"I wouldn’t want to do it with anybody else.”
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.