Outback Bowl analysis: Hawkeyes couldn't afford defensive lapses

Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

TAMPA, Fla. — Iowa’s defense needed to be perfect Monday if there was to be any shot at an Outback Bowl victory over Florida.

It was far from it.

The Hawkeye offense managed a mere 226 yards and couldn’t reach the end zone in the 30-3 shellacking by the Gators at Raymond James Stadium.

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Florida tailback Jordan Scarlett prepares to take a handoff and hit a big hole Monday in the Gators' 30-3 Outback Bowl victory over Iowa. Scarlett ran for 94 yards on 14 carries as Florida made enough explosive plays to send Iowa to a fifth consecutive bowl defeat.

So start there when assigning blame for another lopsided bowl loss.

But an Iowa defense that had played so superbly during the three-game winning streak to end the regular season reverted to its earlier form at the worst possible time, yielding a series of explosive plays to a Florida offense that ranked 116th in the FBS in yards per game.

“It wasn’t a matter of us not being sharp. It was a few times where a lack of communication, that was an issue,” Iowa defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson said. “And also just us not really being able to get off our blocks. I know me, personally, there were times where I couldn’t really get to my gap or I really couldn’t get off a certain block. We just needed to play better.”

Johnson finished with one assisted tackle in his final college game.

The problems began for Iowa midway through the second quarter, with Florida backed up at its 3-yard line after the Hawkeye offense turned the ball over on downs on its best shot at a touchdown. The score was still 3-all, and it was in a similar situation Nov. 12 against Michigan that the Hawkeyes turned the tide in an eventual upset victory. Johnson recorded a safety that evening, and Iowa went on to win 14-13.

On Monday, the Hawkeyes promptly surrendered a 9-yard run to Florida tailback Jordan Scarlett. He wasn’t finished. He took his next carry 46 yards, shrugging off Hawkeye linebacker Ben Niemann at the point of attack and rumbling through a big hole to shift momentum in Florida’s direction.

“I just need to take him to the ground. I had my chest on him, but I just didn’t finish,” Niemann said.

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It was one mistake that quickly was compounded by others. Later in the quarter, third-string tailback Mark Thompson struck for an 85-yard touchdown on a screen pass to give the Gators the lead for good. Half the Iowa defense had a shot at Thompson, but failed to corral him. It was a stunning display of poor tackling from a unit that had been so stingy in November.

“I was just trying to keep my eyes on the running back," said Hawkeyes cornerback Desmond King. "I seen him cut back in, and I tried to meet him. And just a couple of missed tackles from the rest of the team and he was just out on his way.

“It hit us hard. That’s one thing, we didn’t want to give up any big plays and the big plays played a factor in this game. A lot of big plays, chunks of yardage. And that one play really affected the game.”

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Appleby completed three other passes of 21 yards or more as Florida pulled away. Iowa’s longest two completions traveled 18 yards apiece.

Florida finished with only 331 yards, an acceptable total. And Iowa’s defense did produce two early interceptions that led to the three points.

But this Hawkeye squad, with an offense that scored 14 points or fewer in six games, relied heavily on its defense all season long. And Monday was not its finest hour.

“What we saw on tape was really what we got,” Niemann said of Iowa’s gameplan. “Credit to them. They have a lot of great athletes, great players, and they made plays.”

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Florida scored both times it got into the red zone and punted only four times. After Iowa sacked Appleby three times in the first half, the Gators avoided negative plays in the second.

“We can run with them,” Iowa sophomore cornerback Josh Jackson said when asked about the Gators’ speed. “I think it’s just a little bit of a lack of execution. Florida did a good job of scouting us, and I think they executed pretty well.”

King had five tackles and an interception in his Hawkeye farewell, earning an appreciative round of applause from the fans as he headed to the tunnel afterward. But he knew it wasn’t nearly enough. The Hawkeyes essentially needed to pitch a shutout to win this one, and too often, the Gators got to the edge and made them pay.

“You’ve just got to be fundamentally sound out there and making those tackles that we need to make on the boundary,” King said.