Leistikow's Final Thoughts: Outback Bowl MVP Nick Easley delivers in the clutch
TAMPA, Fla. — You can’t make this stuff up.
For the second straight year, Iowa won a weird bowl game by gaining 200 or fewer yards and scoring exactly 27 points.
The Hawkeyes beat No. 18 Mississippi State 27-22 in Tuesday’s Outback Bowl before a crowd of 40,518 at Raymond James Stadium.
A year ago, on a frozen Yankee Stadium field, Iowa was dominated by Boston College early but outlasted all the elements and weird plays for a 27-20 win. The Hawkeyes gained 200 yards in that one; a Nate Stanley kneel-down bumped them back to 199 of total offense this time.
The Hawkeyes finished 9-4, just their second nine-win season since the Orange Bowl-winning year of 2009. They’ll finish this year as a top-25 team.
Some more thoughts from this crazy game ...
In a game of great stories, Nick Easley was maybe the best. And a fitting game MVP.
The former walk-on from Newton sure put a stamp on an impressive two-year Hawkeye career. He caught eight passes for a career-high 104 yards and two touchdowns. And he delivered perhaps the game's signature moment — a 75-yard touchdown pass from Stanley that was a shock to the system of a defensive struggle.
Interestingly, the play was designed for tight end T.J. Hockenson, who was supposed to slip out of the backfield. Maybe Mississippi State safety Johnathan Abram sensed that, too, and he bit on a play-action fake to Toren Young.
That left Easley wide open up the seam. Stanley saw him, and tossed a perfect throw so that Easley could keep sprinting ahead.
“My job was easy on that play,” Stanley grinned.
Easley raced into the South end zone, but not before twice adjusting his helmet — which he said malfunctioned a play before. But Easley's multi-tasking journey to the end zone pushed Iowa's lead to 10-6 and pushed him into the record books.
It was the longest pass play in Iowa bowl history, topping a 66-yard completion from Matt Rodgers to Danan Hughes in the 1991 Rose Bowl.
That Easley is in an Iowa uniform was as unlikely as this performance. He got a call about two years ago, inviting him to walk on at Iowa. He accepted and made the most of it. He recorded 51 receptions last year, 52 this year. He's been a rock-solid contributor, and he came through big Tuesday.
"There's not a lot of places where a guy like me could come in, two years of eligibility left, walking on from junior college," Easley said. "No one really knows who I am, and they gave me every shot in the world to compete, just as much as a scholarship guy. And I'll be forever thankful for that."
Kirk Ferentz got emotional as the game's MVP spoke. He meant a lot to this program and will be difficult to replace.
It looked like insanity at first, but maybe it was genius?
Iowa was unsuccessfully insistent on running the ball on first down in the early stages of Tuesday’s game. The five runs went for (in order) minus-4, minus-5, 2, 2 and 0 yards. But then, play-action — and boom, the longest pass of Stanley’s Iowa career.
Does Easley break that open without Iowa’s predictable tendency on first down? We’ll never know for sure, but let’s just all agree that it’s easier to second-guess play-callers than it is to call plays. This was the call of the game for offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz.
"You probably noticed they are pretty aggressive on defense," Kirk Ferentz said. "... There were a couple different guys that could've gotten the ball, and Nick popped open."
Hockenson’s first game since winning the Mackey Award was considerably quiet ... until it wasn't.
The tight end’s first target didn’t come until the 14:53 mark of the fourth quarter, and that wasn’t even catchable. But then after the stunning Jake Gervase interception as it looked like Mississippi State would take a fourth-quarter lead, Iowa turned to Mr. Mackey.
Stanley flipped a screen to Hockenson, who broke multiple tackles for an impressive 20-yard gain. Then, a strike for 22 yards pushed Iowa into Miguel Recinos field-goal range to establish the final 27-22 margin.
Hockenson was playing for the first time without fellow first-team all-Big Ten Conference wingman Noah Fant, who left the team to train for the NFL Draft. Mississippi State’s defense certainly paid a lot of attention to the red-shirt sophomore.
“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.”
The punting game needs to get better in 2019. A lot better.
The final straw might have been the attempted rugby punt by Colten Rastetter that had such a low trajectory that a linebacker retreating on the punt team “intercepted” it (not really, but he caught it) for a 12-yard punt. That result is pretty much the same as a turnover.
For the day, Rastetter mostly struggled in a game between two tough defenses that put field position at a premium. He averaged 34.4 yards on seven punts, but he did uncork a 45-yarder on his final attempt.
Ihmir Smith-Marsette showed both boom and bust potential Tuesday.
Kirk Ferentz has said multiple times he loves the spirit that the speedy sophomore string-bean receiver brings to the football field. It was exactly that kind of spunk that cost and rewarded the Hawkeyes.
Smith-Marsette’s fumble of a third-quarter kickoff return — in which he tried to hurdle a Mississippi State defender — was unnecessary, even for the Big Ten's return specialist of the year. The miscue turned into a one-play, 33-yard touchdown drive on a winding Nick Fitzgerald run.
“I believed in my bunnies that I could get over that," Smith-Marsette said of his lower body, presumably. "I just had the ball hanging (too) loose.”
Earlier, Smith-Marsette's fight for extra yardage was rewarded.
As Iowa’s offense was struggling mightily, Smith-Marsette hauled in a short pass with little room to run. He got tripped up initially as he tried to break toward the sideline, but kept his balance to continue to claw ahead for every blade of grass he could gain. As he fought to stay on his feet, Mississippi State backup cornerback Maurice Smitherman walloped Smith-Marsette with a helmet-to-helmet hit. That was textbook targeting — a 15-yard penalty and ejection that breathed life and field position into the Hawkeyes.
The play got them into Miguel Recinos' field-goal range, and he converted a 44-yarder to cut Iowa’s deficit to 6-3 and keep the game competitive. Then after a defensive stop came Iowa’s binge of 14 points in 53 seconds for a 17-6 lead — capped by (boom!) Smith-Marsette pulling in a 15-yard throw from Stanley.
Iowa's aggression paid off; Joe Moorhead's tentativeness maybe didn't.
Both teams faced a critical fourth-and-short decisions in the second half. Iowa's worked out great, even if it wasn't pretty.
On fourth-and-1 from Mississippi State's 11 in the third quarter, Iowa could have kicked a field goal for a 20-19 lead. Instead, it went for the first down. Stanley dropped to pass, but nobody was open. Not known for his legs, Stanley scrambled awkwardly for a critical 3 yards. (Whew.)
That was Iowa's only rushing first down of the game. Stanley made it connected with Easley on the next play for an 8-yard touchdown.
Moorhead settled for a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the 3 and later punted on fourth-and-1 from his own 34 with barely over 4 minutes left. Neither panned out, and Iowa won the game.
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.