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Leistikow's 3 Holiday Bowl keys and prediction for Iowa vs. USC matchup

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

SAN DIEGO — Eight, nine, 10.

If No. 19 Iowa can defeat No. 23 USC in Friday night’s Holiday Bowl here at SDCCU Stadium (7 p.m. CT, Fox Sports 1), that’ll be the progression in Hawkeye win totals in each of the last three football seasons.

And that’d be one, two, three straight bowl victories for Kirk Ferentz’s Hawkeyes.

But seizing that 10th win, a probable national top-15 finish and offseason momentum won’t be that simple.

To make it happen, 9-3 Iowa needs to replicate some of the magic it found at the 2017 Pinstripe and 2019 Outback bowls.

In a statistical oddity, the Hawkeyes averaged only 199.5 yards a game but scored 27 points (all on offense) against Boston College and Mississippi State; meanwhile, they allowed an average of 362.5 yards and 23.0 points. Those are typically not winning numbers, but they were on those days. Iowa found a way.

Keep that history in mind as we go through three keys to a Hawkeye victory:

No. 1: Take some chances on defense.

That may sound sacrilege to Phil Parker, but the reality is that his defensive system dares opposing quarterbacks to be precise. And USC quarterback Kedon Slovis might be the best QB the Hawkeyes have faced all year.

Though just a freshman, Slovis is well-trained and has a surgical 71.8% completion rate. He’s coming off a school-record 515 passing yards against UCLA. Iowa got burned by a similar quarterback, Iowa State’s Brock Purdy, until Parker started to bring more blitzes in Ames. That turned the tide in an 18-17 Hawkeye win.

USC coach Clay Helton is nervous about Iowa’s pass rush, which is led by first-team all-Big Ten defensive end A.J. Epenesa and has a sack in 53 consecutive games — the longest active streak in the FBS.

“It's one of the best defensive fronts we've faced all year. They do a great job on first- and second-down efficiency,” Helton said. “They are so well-coached. You don't see them missing assignments or getting out of gaps. And if they get you in third-and-long, they are elite.”

Iowa has created three turnovers in each of its past two bowl wins; and while Slovis has only thrown nine interceptions, he has fumbled seven times this year. The Hawkeyes cannot allow Slovis — who averages 16.3 yards per completion on third down — to get comfortable.

No. 2: Stay on the offensive attack.

Always one of the critical factors in bowl games is emotion; if a team lacks focus during nearly a month of preparation, it’ll show up on game day. My sense is that both teams come in with a determined mindset.

Iowa badly wants that 10th win and a four-game win streak to finish the season to wash out the bad taste of failing to win the Big Ten West. And while there is a lot of unrest in USC's fan base over Helton keeping his job after an 8-4 season, this is an ascending and young Trojans team that has won five of six. USC could use the Helton controversy as a rallying point and won't go down without a fight.

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That’s why the Hawkeyes’ offense needs to stay aggressive. Twenty-seven points was good enough in the past two bowl games, and that needs to be the minimum here. Slovis owns a passer rating of 206.8 in the fourth quarter, best among all FBS quarterbacks. The Trojans used a 14-0 fourth quarter to steal a 35-31 at Colorado; they trailed at Notre Dame by 17 points before rallying to lose a 30-27 final.

If Nate Stanley is going to join Ricky Stanzi as the only Iowa starting quarterbacks to win three bowl games, he’s going to have to play well for 60 minutes.

No. 3: Be special, finish special.

One of the sneaky ways that Iowa has overcome yardage disparities in its past two bowl games was through kickoff-return yardage. Akrum Wadley skated through BC’s defense for 171 kick-return yards, including a 72-yarder that set up a short-field touchdown, in Yankee Stadium. Against Mississippi State, Ihmir Smth-Marsette racked up 150 kick-return yards on five runbacks.

Smith-Marsette is one of the best return men in Big Ten history; and USC happens to have the 129th-best kickoff coverage out of 130 FBS teams, allowing 28.2 yards per pop. The opportunities should be there for Smith-Marsette to break one, just like he did for a touchdown in the regular-season finale at Nebraska.

Another reason special teams are a spotlight area for Iowa in this one: All-American kicker Keith Duncan needs two field goals to tie the FBS record for most in a season (31). He’ll be tested on what are expected to be poor field conditions.

If Iowa can steal seven to 10 points on special teams, its chances go way up to become just the sixth 10-win Iowa team in the last 28 seasons.

So … what happens?

The Hawkeyes are favored by two points, and considering Iowa's three Holiday Bowl trips have been decided by a combined two points, that seems fitting.

I'm not sold on Iowa's offense being able to put together 60 good minutes. But the Hawkeyes' advantage on defense and special teams will be the difference. And they'll find a way.

Prediction: Iowa 30, USC 27.

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.