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Leistikow: Holiday Bowl matchup vs. USC offers Iowa's stingy defense a chance at final act

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — As far as bowl matchups go, this should be fun ... even though Phil Parker might have a different opinion.

Iowa’s defensive coordinator might be facing his most challenging task of the 2019 season in the Holiday Bowl, as the Hawkeyes must gear up to face Southern California, which has one of the best passing offenses in college football.

This USC team doesn’t have Heisman Trophy winners Carson Palmer and Reggie Bush like it did the last time the Trojans and Hawkeyes met in the 2003 Orange Bowl. But it will (presumably) bring a Biletnikoff Award finalist and some jarring numbers Dec. 27 to SDCCU Stadium.

USC wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. (6) has 95 receptions this season. He highlights a Trojans passing offense that ranks fifth in the country.

USC ranks fifth nationally with 335.9 passing yards per game, and that doesn’t tell the full story. USC’s air game has gotten better as the season has progressed. Freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis has thrown for more than 400 yards in four of his last five games, including 515 in the Nov. 23 season finale against rival UCLA.

A talented receiver group is led by junior Michael Pittman Jr., one of three finalists to be named the country’s top wideout. He has 95 catches for 1,222 yards and 11 touchdowns. To put that in perspective, Iowa’s season record for receptions is 82.

The Hawkeyes' secondary veterans sounded confident ... and eager for the challenge Sunday night.

Safety Geno Stone said an initial look at USC reminded him of what pass-happy Purdue does.

Except USC probably has even better personnel.

“That’s exciting," senior cornerback Michael Ojemudia said. "Most of the time in the Big Ten, we don’t get that.”

Now, it’s safe to say that USC hasn’t faced many defenses like Iowa’s.

This matchup will have a totally different feel than Iowa’s last two games of the regular season, when it limited Illinois and Nebraska to an average of 122 yards passing.

Buckle up, cornerbacks Matt Hankins and Ojemudia.

Get ready, true freshman Dane Belton — who emerged at Iowa’s cash position late in the season.

Know your keys, safeties Stone and Jack Koerner.

Knowing Parker, he'll have the Hawkeyes ready. Iowa hasn’t allowed any opponent to score more than 24 points this season.

“Coach Parker and the whole defensive staff puts together good game plans for us," Stone said. "I feel like we’ll do our job. We have 2-3 weeks to get prepared for this game, so I think it’ll help us a lot.”

On the flip side, USC has scored less than 24 only once — in a 28-14 loss to Washington, a game that Slovis missed while in concussion protocol.

The Hawkeyes need to hold USC to 10 points or fewer to establish a new Kirk Ferentz-era low in points-per-game allowed (the 2008 team owns the standard, at 13.0). Iowa enters bowl season fifth in FBS, at 13.2.

The fact that Iowa has partially transitioned to a 4-2-5 base defense in the last 14 months should help. 

“Anytime we can match personnel is going to be good for us," Parker said. "That’s going to help us out in the future. I think it’s helped us out this last season.”

USC's defense, by the way, ranks 66th (tied with Nebraska) at 27.8 points allowed per game.

More coverage Sunday:

Embrace the fact that Iowa gets another chance to stack up against a bigger brand.

Iowa went 0-for-2 against “name” programs this year, falling in one-score losses to Michigan and Penn State in October. This offers another chance to see where things stand against an opponent that recruits a bevy of highly touted athletes.

The Hawkeyes have their own big-time players: Right tackle Tristan Wirfs was the Big Ten's offensive lineman of the year; defensive end A.J. Epenesa was a first-team all-conference pick for the second straight year.

"Obviously, when you think college football, you think Alabama and USC — the more famous schools," Epenesa said. "But what excites me the most is all my family on the Samoan side lives on the West Coast."

About 20 to 25 family members from California, he said, will be at the game. 

Stone also has some family ties that excites him about the Holiday Bowl matchup ... well, sort of. 

Let the native of New Castle, Pennsylvania, explain.

"Some of my family grew up Penn State fans, the other side grew up Notre Dame. So I always grew up rooting against USC," he said. "It’s pretty cool to be playing a team like this.”

Realistically, this is probably the last Iowa game for Wirfs and Epenesa.

Both juniors are supposed to be first-rounders, if they indeed declare for the 2020 NFL Draft. They both were well-prepared to take questions on the matter Sunday. They'll both wait for feedback from the NFL's College Advisory Committee. It'd be a shock if they don't get first-round grades; and an equal shock if they return to Iowa for their senior years.

"The feedback from them will probably have a big impact," Epenesa said plainly. 

There you go.

Good for them for putting themselves in this position. And it's admirable that they're committed to playing in Iowa's bowl game. What's interesting is that because of the later-than-usual bowl announcement (Dec. 8) and the earliest bowl game of the Ferentz era (Dec. 27), they'll have more than three weeks after the game before the Jan. 20 deadline for underclassmen to declare.

So, truly, there's no rush to decide.

Lastly, Iowa is almost certain to finish the season as a ranked team.

At 9-3, the Hawkeyes stayed at No. 16 in Sunday’s College Football Playoff rankings and are No. 19 in the Associated Press and coaches’ polls. At 8-4, USC was ranked either No. 22 or No. 23 in all three.

A win over the Trojans, and Iowa is almost certainly a top-15 national finisher. A loss, and it’ll almost certainly remain in the top 25 — which would mark the first wire-to-wire season ranked (from preseason to final) for the Hawkeye program since 1991 … which was also the last time Iowa played in a Holiday Bowl.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.