TAMPA, Fla. — Tuesday’s Outback Bowl had more swings than an elementary school playground.
No. 18 Mississippi State was in control in the first quarter. Iowa owned the second, then fell on its face early in the third. A turnover by one team was matched by a turnover by the other. Explosive plays and head-shaking plays occurred with equal frequency.
Hawkeye defensive end Chauncey Golston said he had his head on a swivel. But who didn’t?
Certainly the announced crowd of 40,518 in muggy Raymond James Stadium had no idea where all of this was leading.
Here’s where it ended up: Hawkeyes 27, Bulldogs 22.
Here’s what it all means: Iowa finishes 9-4, the 15th time in program history its gotten at least that many wins. Iowa wins a second consecutive bowl game for the first time since 2010. Iowa beats a ranked team for the first time this season, getting a signature victory in its last chance at doing so. Iowa becomes the only Big Ten Conference team to defeat an SEC team this bowl season (Michigan, Penn State and Purdue all fell short).
And the Hawkeyes are poised to appear in the season-ending polls for the first time in four seasons. If you don’t think that means something to the players, think again.
“Hopefully, we’re a top 20 team,” Golston said after his fumble recovery and interception led to a pair of touchdowns. “Going into it, we were like, ‘If we beat an SEC team, top 20, we should be top 20.’ But if it doesn’t happen, no one’s going to be sad. We just won a bowl game.”
That they did. But it certainly wasn’t easy ... or particularly pretty.
Iowa ended up with minus-15 yards rushing against the best run defense in the nation. In a grind-it-out game, the Hawkeyes were simply grounded. No team had won a bowl game with that low of a total since San Jose State in the 2012 Military Bowl.
“We knew that running the ball was going to be tough. It wasn’t for lack of trying,” Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley said.
“But the offensive line did a good job in the pass game, gave me some time, and the guys catching the ball and making yards after catches did a great job.”
Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley says he had to win the Outback Bowl through the air. He also describes his best throw of the game. Listen in: Hawk Central
Stanley threw for 214 yards and three touchdowns. Mississippi State (8-5) had not allowed more than one passing TD in a game all season. Nor had the Bulldogs surrendered a play that gained more than 50 yards until Stanley reared back in the second quarter and found Nick Easley running uncovered down the right seam. That play covered 75 yards, the longest pass in the junior’s career.
That connection gave Iowa its first lead at 10-6. A 15-yard scoring pass to Ihmir Smith-Marsette 97 seconds later made it 17-6 at halftime. That was the most impressive throw of Stanley’s 21 completions.
“The route kind of got thrown off, but he beat the guy,” Stanley said of his perfectly placed pass to the right sideline. “As (quarterbacks) coach (Ken) O’Keefe says, one of our jobs as quarterbacks is to make things right. And he made things right with that route.”
Smith-Marsette, a sophomore, expanded on those thoughts.
“He (Bulldogs cornerback Chris Rayford) lunged. And when he lunged inside, he lost his leverage outside,” Smith-Marsette said. “So I just used great technique and put him inside of me, and then went outside and faced my body toward the open window. Nate put a great ball on me, and we finished the play.”
An 11-point lead the way Iowa’s defense was playing should have been comfortable. It wasn’t on this afternoon.
Stanley made an ill-advised throw on the opening possession of the third quarter. Bulldogs linebacker Willie Gay Jr. jumped the route and caught the football on the fly, running 46 yards to the Iowa 6-yard line. Three plays later, it was a 17-12 Iowa lead.
Smith-Marsette, holding the football precariously, fumbled the ensuing kickoff off a teammate's helmet, setting up Mississippi State on Iowa’s 33-yard line. Bulldogs quarterback Nick Fitzgerald ran for a touchdown on the next play.
Less than 4 minutes into the second half, the Hawkeyes were suddenly and somberly trailing 19-17.
They didn’t panic. But coach Kirk Ferentz admitted to feeling queasy.
“If you can read my mind or look at my stomach internally, it would be a whole different deal,” he said. “That's the worst possible thing we could have done, obviously, and those were two ugly plays, quite frankly.”
Golston’s interception set up a go-ahead touchdown, this one an 8-yard pitch from Stanley to Easley, who was named MVP of the bowl. The Hawkeyes made that lead hold up, thanks to an interception in the end zone by safety Jake Gervase.
It also helped that Iowa never committed a penalty while the Bulldogs racked up eight. No team in the 33-game history of the Outback Bowl had gone unflagged.
Iowa’s passing game did what its running game couldn’t. Iowa’s defense came up with turnovers at exactly the right moment. Iowa’s 2018 resume now includes a significant victory, even if it came on the first day of 2019.
T.J. Hockenson, the Hawkeyes’ brilliant sophomore tight end, said the result Tuesday exemplified something he had witnessed all season.
“We’re a talented team, obviously, and we’ve got a lot of things going for us,” Hockenson said after what may have been his final game in a Hawkeye uniform.
“But I think something you guys don’t see, especially this game, we’re thinking right. We all have the mindset that we’re going to come in and we’re going to attack it. And that’s every game.”
Follow the Register on Facebook and Twitter for more news. Mark Emmert can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @MarkEmmert.