Outback Bowl: The game's Pittsburgh influence and a Tristan Wirfs 'firestorm'

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

TAMPA, Fla. — There will be a Pittsburgh flavor to Tuesday’s Outback Bowl matchup, and it stems from the head coaches.

Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz, 63, and Mississippi State’s Joe Moorhead, 45, are from different generations but share a western Pennsylvania upbringing. Both spoke about what that means Saturday during their final media session before the Jan. 1 game.

In this photo supplied from the University of Iowa, head coach Kirk Ferentz directs a Dec. 27 practice in Tampa. Ferentz and Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead hail from western Pennsylvania.

“What are the odds of two guys from Iowa and Mississippi, you know, we probably grew up 15 miles from each other,” Ferentz said. “We were joking about this earlier. In Pittsburgh, if you live on one side of the river, you might as well be in another state, or country for that matter.”

Moorhead, in his first season at the helm of the No. 18 Bulldogs, was previously the offensive coordinator for Penn State. He spoke about what his heritage has meant to him.

“Western Pennsylvania prides itself on certainly being a blue-collar, roll-up-your-sleeves, go-to-work, shut-your-mouth-and-let-your-production-speak-for-itself type of town. And I think any football program, that resonates because that’s what you want to see in your players,” Moorhead said.

The two coaches did sound a lot alike when talking about their teams and their sport. The age difference only became apparent once, when Moorhead was talking about being a bandwagon Pittsburgh Penguins fan when that team makes a run in the NHL playoffs.

“I’m old enough to know the Pittsburgh Hornets,” Ferentz joked, referencing an American Hockey League team that hasn’t existed in 51 years.

Yes, Tristan Wirfs is in starting lineup.

On Friday, Iowa’s practice was open to members of the media for about 30 minutes. Many pointed out that starting right tackle Wirfs was practicing with the second unit. The alarms raised by those tweets even reached Wirfs’ mother, Sarah.

It was much ado about nothing, Ferentz assured reporters Saturday. Levi Paulsen was taking Wirfs’ starting spot during select drills only as part of a natural rotation that occurs often in practice.

“You guys caused a firestorm there,” Ferentz chided reporters. “We rotate guys around in practice all the time. So poor Tristan got a call from his mom, like two hours later after practice, right? She’s worried the kid’s sick or hurt or whatever. So chalk one up for social media on that one.”

Expect Wirfs to start, as usual.

Also, expect fewer two-tight end formations from the Hawkeyes.

Noah Fant has declared for the NFL Draft and left the team early, leaving T.J. Hockenson as the primary pass-catching option at that position. Nate Wieting will be the next man in, but he’s known for his blocking ability.

Drew Cook would be the third tight end Tuesday, Ferentz said, although Cook was not in pads during Friday's portion of the practice open to the media.

“One of the objectives offensively is to get your best guys on the field, and I don’t mean that in a belittling way to Nate,” Ferentz said. “But those are judgments we’ll make. … All that being said, we’re not afraid of having Nate in there.”

Mississippi State has two top NFL prospects who will play

The Bulldogs have a pair of defensive linemen — Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons — who are potential first-round NFL Draft choices after this season. Both have opted to play Tuesday rather than concentrate on their pro futures.

Moorhead said he had only limited conversations with Sweat and Simmons about that decision. But he was clearly appreciative of the one they made.

“I think you have to make the decision that’s best for you personally,” Moorhead said of anyone facing that dilemma. “And certainly for the guys to come back and decide that they want to play in their last game in the maroon and white, I think it’s a testament to their commitment to the program, but more importantly to their teammates.

"We have a team that’s incredibly close, great chemistry. And more than anything I think they want to finish this out for each other.”

Iowa's offense reminds Moorhead of LSU

The coaches were asked who among their conference opponents is most similar to the unfamiliar team they’ll be seeing Tuesday. These programs have never met in football.

Moorhead said Iowa’s offense was most similar to LSU in the Southeastern Conference. Both the Hawkeyes are more traditional with tight ends and fullbacks.

“Physical offensive line, quarterback who can beat you with his arm,” Moorhead said of Nate Stanley. “So certainly being able to defend the run, the quick game, the quarterback movement stuff.”

Iowa’s defense is dissimilar to any in the SEC, though, Moorhead noted. That league is heavy on three-man fronts. Iowa plays with four defensive linemen in 4-3 or 4-2-5 alignments.

Ferentz said Penn State is an obvious comparison for Mississippi State. Moorhead and defensive coordinator Bob Shoop both spent time with the Nittany Lions.

“They’ve got really good players, but those guys are really well-coached and they execute the defense, so it’s hard to find them giving up big plays, easy plays,” Ferentz said. “That’s a sign of a good defense, when they make you work for everything.”