Once again, Hawkeye defense tries to tame high-powered passing attack in a bowl game

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

SAN DIEGO — Iowa has had success taming high-powered passing attacks in bowl games.

That includes the last time the Hawkeye football team played in this city.

So Friday’s 7 p.m. Holiday Bowl against USC isn’t uncharted territory; it’s just a little off the beaten path for a Hawkeye defense used to competing in the rugged Big Ten Conference.

The No. 23 Trojans (8-4) are led by a freshman quarterback, Kedon Slovis, who set a school record by passing for more than 400 yards four times this fall. He’ll sling the football when USC is ahead (47 times in a 52-35 win over UCLA) or behind (57 times in a 56-24 loss to Oregon).

Iowa junior safety Geno Stone, warming up at Mesa College before a Wednesday practice in San Diego, will be one of the keys to trying to slow down a USC passing attack led by freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis.

Slovis will pass it to all-American wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. (95 receptions), or Tyler Vaughns and Amon-Ra St. Brown (68 catches apiece).

Slovis completed 260 of 362 passes for 3,242 yards and 28 touchdowns. That’s a 71.8 completion percentage. He did all of this with only nine interceptions.

“He's extremely impressive, for any age, but for a freshman, it's uncanny how poised he is back there,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of Slovis. “He's slippery.”

► Leistikow3 Holiday Bowl keys and prediction for Iowa vs. USC matchup

No. 19 Iowa (9-3) counters with a stingy defense that has held seven opponents to their season-low point total this season. The Hawkeyes are 12th in the nation in yards allowed per game (304.3) and sixth in points allowed (13.2).

The Hawkeyes will line up frequently in the 4-2-5 and take their chances. The front four will try to pressure Slovis into releasing the football early. The back seven will look to make him pay when he does throw it.

Freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis has been throwing it a lot lately for USC.

Junior safety Geno Stone, who may be playing in his last game as a Hawkeye as he weighs an NFL future, knows he can bolster his reputation if he helps shut down Pittman and Co. He described the USC receivers with a string of adjectives.

“These guys are really good, very explosive. Big, tall guys, lanky. Really good speed,” Stone said. “These guys have the talent to take it the distance any time they catch the ball, make big plays. Overall, it’s probably the best receiving group we’ve played.”

That means better than Minnesota, which passed for 368 yards in a 23-19 loss at Iowa on Nov. 16. And better than Penn State, which was limited to 117 yards through the air but still won at Iowa 17-12 on Oct. 12. Purdue came to Iowa on Oct. 19 with star rookie receiver David Bell (13 catches for 197 yards) but without preseason all-American Rondale Moore.

This USC team is akin to a Boilermaker squad with both of its talented receivers. Plus one to spare.

“You always love going against guys who are potential NFL talent. If you want to be in that same level, you love the competition, you love going against guys of that caliber,” Iowa linebacker Djimon Colbert said.

“Just try to stay in as much passing windows as you can. They still have some intermediate routes. If we have a chance to get in that quarterback’s face, we’ve got to apply the pressure to make him get the ball out fast.”

Slovis is a 6-foot-2, 200-pound native of Scottsdale, Arizona. He was coached by Cedar Rapids native and NFL Hall of Famer Kurt Warner in high school. His offensive coordinator at USC is former Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell.

Harrell brought the Air Raid offense with him. Slovis arrived in the wintertime and picked it up fast.

“I'm a quarterback coach by trade, and to watch a young man grow from game one to where he is now, that's what you want to see as a head coach, especially at the quarterback position,” USC coach Clay Helton said. “I thought our team would grow as our quarterback grew, and as he got better and more confident, more comfortable and became a better quarterback throughout the season, so did our team.”

USC has won five of its past six games. So has Iowa. This looks like a classic postseason matchup of a superior defense trying to lock down a hot offense.

Just like in Ferentz’s first bowl game as head coach, the 2001 Alamo. That was against a Texas Tech team coached by Mike Leach, the father of the Air Raid offense. Kliff Kingsbury was the quarterback, and he had piled up 3,502 passing yards in 11 games. The Hawkeyes gave up 309, but just one touchdown. Star safety Bob Sanders intercepted Kingsbury to preserve a 19-16 win.

“The roots of that whole system started back with coach Leach, so it's going to be a big, big challenge for us,” Ferentz noted.

Iowa hasn’t appeared in a Holiday Bowl since 1991. That was against a BYU offense led by quarterback Ty Detmer. He was third in the Heisman Trophy voting that year after passing for 4,031 yards and 35 touchdowns.

Detmer was good for 350 yards and two second-half touchdowns against Iowa. But Carlos James picked off his final pass. Iowa held on for a 13-13 tie.

And now comes Slovis. He is facing an Iowa secondary that is disappointed to have only eight interceptions this season. That is unlike the Hawkeyes.

Stone, at 5-foot-10, is eager to test himself against the likes of the 6-4 Pittman, a potential first-round NFL Draft pick.

“I’m going to try to compete every time I have the opportunity. If I’m in single high, deep middle, I’m going to try and be a ballhawk back there. Go up for the ball if they throw a jump ball,” Stone said. “As a competitor, I’m going to try to take it every time.”

Maybe even on the last pass of the game. The outcome of this one certainly could come down to that.

No. 23 USC (8-4) vs. No. 19 IOWA (9-3)

  • What: Holiday Bowl
  • Where: SDCCU Stadium, San Diego
  • When: 7 p.m. Friday
  • TV: FS1 (Gus Johnson, Joel Klatt, Jenny Taft)
  • Weather: 57 degrees and clear skies; winds from south-southwest at 4 mph

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.