Outback Bowl: Iowa gets pass-game help, tough-luck injuries, Greg Davis love

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Some day-after-the-announcement news and thoughts from 8-4 and No. 25 Iowa’s Outback Bowl matchup with 8-4 and No. 18 Florida. …

Welcome back, George

Despite being slowed by injuries, Iowa tight George Kittle ended up tying for the team lead with four receiving touchdowns in 2016.

Iowa’s passing game could use any help it can get. And a healthier 6-foot-4, 250-pound reinforcement is on the way.

No. 1 tight end George Kittle indicated he should be close to his pre-Purdue self by noon CT on Jan. 2. Kittle suffered a foot injury Oct. 15 at West Lafayette, Ind., and kept fighting an uphill battle in the following weeks to get healthy.

This week, for the first time in a long time, Kittle actually participated in practice.

What he discovered: rust.

“My route-running’s poor,” he said with a smile. “It’s just different, being out there again. If you’re not practicing, you’re running on the side. So being able to get in and out of cuts again, it’s really nice to be actually able to do it again.”

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The senior from Norman, Okla., is always outwardly optimistic in his healing ability, so take this with a grain of salt: Kittle says he didn’t suffer any setback after playing (and catching two short touchdown passes) in Iowa’s regular-season finale against Nebraska.

Despite being slowed by injuries, Iowa tight George Kittle ended up tying for the team lead with four receiving touchdowns in 2016.

So he’s practicing. And there are 38 days between games. It all sounds encouraging.

“The training staff’s been helping me out a lot, making me do a whole bunch of extra stuff, which has really helped,” Kittle said. “Just getting healthy one day at a time.”

Quarterback C.J. Beathard needs him. In the first seven games, Iowa averaged 184.1 yards passing a game. In the five games Kittle was either limited or out, Iowa averaged 129.4.

Enter Josh Jackson

While the pass offense got encouraging news Sunday, the pass defense didn’t. The Hawkeyes’ No. 2 and No. 3 cornerbacks are likely out for the Tampa, Fla., ABC-televised game.

In saying that Greg Mabin would miss the Outback Bowl and Manny Rugamba is a long shot, Ferentz sounded ready to turn to redshirt sophomore Josh Jackson for his first career start.

Jackson entered the Nebraska game after true freshman Rugamba suffered a right-shoulder injury away from the ball. Redshirt freshman Michael Ojemudia would be the next corner and nickel back.

“Manny came out (and) Josh went in there and played like a veteran, like a starter,” Ferentz said. “Certainly a nice contrast to when we had the entire (No. 2) group go in back in October (in a 49-35 win over Purdue), and it just looked like the Normandy invasion coming at us.”

(Pause: That was funny.)

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The Mabin right lower-leg injury is something trainers didn't initially detect; one that Ferentz said (without specifying) has happened only twice in 15 years of the athletic department. That’s unfortunate for any fifth-year senior, especially for one with 35 career starts going back to his home state.

More injury stuff

As you might guess, fullback Drake Kulick is out after breaking his left leg against Nebraska.

Third-team all-Big Ten offensive tackle Cole Croston (lower leg) is a maybe. Croston missed five games.

“(Croston) I think has a realistic chance,” Ferentz said. “He's not practicing yet, so it's kind of one of those long, slow deals.”

Beathard says he’s fine, health-wise, but will continue to wear the left-knee brace he’s worn all year — he says as a precaution — in the bowl game.

“It was frustrating, that (brace). It was a love-hate relationship,” he said. “I got used to it after a while. I didn’t really like wearing it.”

Shorter trip, but not by much

Much has already been made about Iowa deciding to shorten its bowl trip. But, in reality, the Hawkeyes are only shaving one day off last year's duration.

(The team flies to Tampa on Dec. 26 for the Jan. 2 game; it left Dec. 24 for last season’s Jan. 1 Rose Bowl.)

But the bigger story, really, is that Jan. 2 is six days later than Iowa’s other top bowl alternative, the Dec. 27 Holiday. That’s important for the Hawkeyes, because final exams begin Monday. That’s later than a lot of other colleges hold finals week.

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Ferentz doesn’t hold regular team activities during finals, so there is a big boost in players having full football focus once finals are done Dec. 16.

The Outback taking Iowa over 9-3 Nebraska essentially gifts the Hawkeyes with practice time they wouldn’t have had otherwise.

“Moving it to the 2nd gives us a little bit more time to get ready and have ample preparation without wearing the team out, too,” Ferentz said. “And that's really important. Kind of happy about that.”

‘Developmental’ jackpot

From the media’s perspective, one of the best parts of Iowa’s bowl-game week is access to the team’s coordinators. The Hawkeyes only turn loose Greg Davis and Phil Parker with reporters a few times a year. It's a good opportunity to ask about young, developing players.

So stay tuned for that from Tampa later this month.

Iowa, as a self-labeled developmental program, savors this extra month of NCAA-permitted practice. This is the Hawkeyes’ 14th bowl game in 16 years; teams that fail to reach the postseason (Michigan State, Notre Dame and Oregon are among this year’s examples) don’t have this luxury.

“The value of playing in a bowl game, I think … anybody that's involved with college football understands just how important that is,” Ferentz said. “What a great opportunity it is for our team to continue to develop.”

Greg Davis love

Speaking of Davis, Florida coach Jim McElwain had glowing words about the longtime offensive coordinator. When McElwain was an Alabama assistant, he remembers coming away impressed from a visit with Davis (while he was at Texas).

"He’s one of the highly respected offensive minds," McElwain said of Davis. "He does some great things with the personnel that he has. He has a senior quarterback that I think is playing really good. He obviously has his fingerprints all over it. Those guys do a really good job.”

Of course, a segment of the Iowa fan base just rolled its eyes. The Hawkeyes’ offense is ranked 120th out of 128 FBS teams. But, still, that quote was unsolicited from McElwain — a sign of respect from a man who was brought to Florida from Colorado State for his own creative offensive concepts.