Iowa players celebrate with the Holiday Bowl trophy after a 49-24 win against USC. Hawk Central
SAN DIEGO — In Iowa football's first game after the death of an innovator that changed its program forever, the Hawkeyes put on an offensive show that would’ve made Hayden Fry proud.
And, just for Hayden, the Hawkeyes threw in a few exotics along the way.
"A complete team victory," coach Kirk Ferentz said afterward.
Tyrone Tracy Jr. scored the game’s first touchdown on a 23-yard reverse run, Ihmir Smith-Marsette scored in three different ways and Iowa racked up the second-most points in a bowl game in school history.
Only Fry’s 55-17 rout of Texas in the 1984 Freedom Bowl saw more Hawkeye points, another southern California bowl trip in which Iowa overwhelmed a traditional college-football power.
Chuck Long threw a memorable six touchdown passes on that rainy night in Anaheim. And although Stanley’s numbers (18-for-27, 213 yards, two touchdowns) weren’t at that level, he did direct Iowa’s best 60 minutes of offense this season and joins Ricky Stanzi in finishing 3-for-3 in bowl games as the starting quarterback.
"All three of those bowl games were truly team wins," Stanley said. "I can't thank my teammates enough for allowing me to be in that position."
The Hawkeyes scored touchdowns on their first five possessions, an impressive feat that included Smith-Marsette's 98-yard kickoff return in the second quarter. They consistently found ways to move the chains, part of a ball-hogging strategy to keep USC's elite receivers off the field as much as possible.
This Iowa offense — the one that failed to top 30 points in any Big Ten Conference game this season — was so dangerous that the only way USC thought to stop it was with an onside kick early in the second half.
Credit Brian Ferentz for a creative batch of plays. This is what the third-year offensive coordinator has wanted to see all season, his assortment of playmakers finding and capitalizing on mismatches. And yes, he pulled out some Hayden tricks, too, including a reverse pass that almost worked — with Smith-Marsette’s throw just barely missing Brandon Smith for a would-be touchdown.
But even after the misses, Iowa found hits. After the reverse throw, Stanley hit tight end Sam LaPorta for 14 yards. And four plays later, Smith-Marsette was celebrating in the end zone on a jet-sweep run.
“We feel like we can take the edge with most teams we play, especially with people like Ihmir and Tyrone," receiver Nico Ragaini said.
By night's end, the Hawkeyes walked away — or maybe we should say ran away — from SDCCU Stadium with a four-game win streak and 10-3 record.
Linebacker Nick Niemann probably had the best game of his Iowa career, and he started it on the bench. Hawk Central
Phil Parker’s move to Nick Niemann was rewarded.
After USC converted multiple completions against Iowa weak-side linebacker Djimon Colbert, including on a 16-yard touchdown to Vavae Malepeai to tie it at 14-all, Parker hooked the 22-game starter. He replaced Colbert with Nick Niemann, who didn’t have much of a role otherwise with Iowa playing its 4-2-5 defense against the pass-heavy Trojans.
Niemann, a fourth-year junior, trains often at the weak side, and he was ready. As an outside linebacker when Iowa plays a 4-3, Niemann is more comfortable in pass coverage. He also pressured Kedon Slovis on a blitz that forced the first half’s lone punt. With USC’s fleet of wide receivers, it was a short-term fix that helped turn that deadlocked game into a 28-17 Iowa halftime lead.
Niemann later got home on a blitz of backup quarterback Matt Fink to help stall some USC momentum. And then, for good measure, Niemann returned an interception 25 yards for a touchdown with 1:43 to play. That defensive score was Iowa's first of the year and extended the Hawkeyes' string to 12 consecutive seasons with an interception-return touchdown.
“There was no way I was taking a knee there," Niemann said. "That was our first defensive touchdown of the season. That was what I told coach Parker, my excuse for not taking a knee."
Iowa wide receiver Brandon Smith says Ihmir Smith-Marsette is a gifted athlete and his Holiday Bowl performance was no surprise. Hear more: Hawk Central
Brandon Smith’s return was quickly noticed and valuable.
The Hawkeyes’ “X” receiver who suffered a a high-ankle sprain Oct. 19 that required surgery made a clutch catch on his first snap — Iowa’s third — of the game. Smith snatched a 10-yard gain on third-and-9, the type of crucial chain-moving grab he was making frequently before the injury.
All three of Smith’s first-half catches (for 26 yards) resulted in first downs. In the fourth quarter, the rangy junior from Mississippi hauled in a 6-yard touchdown from a scrambling Stanley on a nice improvisation.
“To catch that first touchdown pass my first game back was like a dream," Smith said. "Knowing I’m back on the field, back with my friends … it was a great feeling.”
Iowa’s wide-receiver corps was down Oliver Martin (shoulder injury) but was still playing at its best — Smith back in the fold, Ihmir Smith-Marsette having a monster night, Tracy scoring on that reverse and Ragaini adding two catches for 54 yards to finish as the team's season leader in receptions.
Speed? Yeah, Iowa was good in that department on Friday night.
Iowa Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz speaks after a 49-24 rout of USC in the Holiday Bowl, after which Iowa honored the late Hayden Fry. Hawk Central
Yet, with all that ... a tight end was Iowa’s leading receiver.
Sam LaPorta sure launched himself into the 2020 season with a bang. Not only did he have the clutch, 22-yard catch that set up Keith Duncan’s winning field goal at Nebraska, he set a career-high with six receptions (for 44 yards) against USC.
The true freshman’s growth this season showed up with more key plays on a prime-time stage. His biggest conversion was a leaping, eight-yard catch on third-and-5 from Iowa’s own 15-yard line with the Hawkeyes clinging to a 28-24 lead. LaPorta received hard contact from USC’s Talano Hufanga as he caught the pass but held on.
That moved the chains and led to a 14-play, 90-yard drive that Tyler Goodson capped with a 1-yard touchdown run.
“Tight ends are a critical piece and I happened to make a few catches and get spotted out,” said LaPorta, whose 15 catches for the season was the most by any tight end (Nate Wieting had 10, Shaun Beyer seven). “The rest of my teammates were great tonight, and I can’t thank them enough.”
Contrary to what it looked like, this was not the same officiating crew that called the Iowa-Nebraska game.
Boy, this Atlantic Coast Conference crew had some rough stretches. But we need to throw the replay official in there, too. To find conclusive, indisputable evidence that Slovis’ initially-ruled fumble (that Kristian Welch recovered) was a forward pass was hard to believe.
And two plays after USC’s ensuing punt, the flag that Ragaini got for illegal touching was a joke. Ragaini was ruled to be "covered up" on the line of scrimmage and therefore an ineligible receiver. But replays showed he was clearly offset from the line, as he almost always is as the slot receiver, on his 11-yard reception that was nullified. Head-scratching.
None of that nonsense mattered, as Stanley hit Ragaini for 24 yards on the very next play on what might have been his best throw of the night.
But you saw on TV what we did here — the non-holding calls, the inconsistency, the moving definition of conclusive evidence ... it's frustrating to watch.
Iowa safety Geno Stone will talk to a lot of people before deciding whether to pursue the NFL this year. Hear him describe his process: Hawk Central
We know some NFL decisions are looming, but Alaric Jackson has made his intent clear.
In his first interview since the end of the regular season, Iowa's starting left tackle said he never thought about going to the NFL. Frustrated that he was injured most of the season, Jackson will be back as a fifth-year senior.
“I’m not really interested, to be honest," Jackson said of the NFL. "I had an injury earlier in the season. I want to get my degree as well, and to focus on my pass (protection).”
Jackson said he was still only about 70% healthy after a knee injury in Iowa's opener, but "it's for my team, so I played through it pretty much."
Defensive end A.J. Epenesa, offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs and safety Geno Stone are third-year juniors who haven't made their intentions known. I think it's best to assume all three are gone, then be happy if any of them come back. But at least Iowa got good news from Jackson.
To close, some final things for the record book ...
This was Keith Duncan's first game without a field goal all year, which means he fell two field goals shy of the FBS record of 31 for the season. He did make all seven of his PATs and finished with 119 points, one shy of a school record shared by Shonn Greene (2008) and Nate Kaeding (2002).
Goodson finished with 638 rushing yards this season, making him the first true freshman to lead Iowa in that category.
Stanley's 17-yard pass to Wieting on third-and-3 late in the fourth quarter pushed him into the No. 2 spot in Iowa history with 8,302 passing yards. He nudged past Drew Tate (8,292) with that toss. Chuck Long (10,461) remains the record holder.
And finally, with a third straight bowl win, Ferentz is now 9-8 at Iowa in bowl games. Only Ohio State has more (10; and that counts playoff wins) since 2001 among Big Ten teams.
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.