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Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker likens Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald to Trace McSorley of Penn State, with his ability to run. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

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TAMPA, Fla. — The Mississippi State defense ranked second in the nation in yards per play, just behind Clemson.

So the No. 18 Bulldogs are rightfully getting a lot of respect heading into Tuesday’s Outback Bowl matchup with Iowa.

But the Hawkeye defense ranked eighth in that very same statistic. That was just below Alabama and Notre Dame, two other teams that are in contention for a national championship. Iowa’s defense is a very stout and prideful unit as well.

“Let’s try to be the best defense on the field,” Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker instructed his players. “Obviously, they’re a really talented defensive team. Yeah, is it a challenge? I’m sure that our guys take it as a challenge. Really … I want our guys to go out there and try to execute our game plan, what we have to do and play the hardest. Give me their best effort.”

Frequently, that has been enough for Iowa, which allowed 4.55 yards per play this season, second in the Big Ten Conference behind Michigan. Mississippi State yielded 4.14.

It’s the dominant storyline heading into this game between 8-4 teams. Which defense can best impose its will? Both have shown they can win games on their own. The Bulldogs held seven of their 12 opponents to 10 or fewer points. Iowa did so four times, including a pair of shutouts in league play.

“We make plays,” Iowa safety Amani Hooker said. “Guys get interceptions, force fumbles and get sacks all across the board. I think we’re really good, to be honest.”

Iowa defenders said Friday they don’t feel overlooked in this contest.

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The Hawkeyes prepare for their matchup in the Outback Bowl against Mississippi State. The first 30 minutes of the Dec. 28 practice was open to media. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

“I think we’re more focused on what we can improve on and being the best defense we can be,” Iowa linebacker Djimon Colbert said.

“We’re always focused on the next goal, the next milestone.”

The Hawkeyes haven’t shut out a postseason opponent since Texas Tech in the 1996 Alamo Bowl. That would be one goal to shoot for. The Bulldogs may present that opportunity if Iowa is at its best. Mississippi State scored seven or fewer points in all four losses this season.

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Iowa linebacker Djimon Colbert charts the growth of the Hawkeye defense Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

Parker made it clear Friday that he’s proud of what his defense has done this season, regardless of Tuesday’s outcome.

“Every game that we went into, our kids played hard, they were well-prepared and they gave great effort and they played as a team. All the way across the board. So what else can you ask for? If you’re not good enough, you’re not good enough,” Parker said.

“I thought this was a great group to coach.”

Follow the Register on Facebook and Twitter for more sports news. Mark Emmert can be contacted at memmert@dmreg.com or on Twitter @MarkEmmert.

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