SAN DIEGO — If the Holiday Bowl was a showcase for a wide receiver with NFL talent, that person was clearly Iowa’s Ihmir Smith-Marsette.
The Hawkeye junior scored three touchdowns in the second quarter alone Friday to put the sizzle into the stake that Iowa drove into the USC defense in a 49-24 victory at SDCCU Stadium.
The west end zone here was the one that had “IOWA” spelled out in large gold letters against a black backdrop. And that’s the one Smith-Marsette kept prancing into.
LEISTIKOW'S THOUGHTS:A show on offense that Hayden Fry would have loved
First, it was a 6-yard rush around the left end to put the No. 19 Hawkeyes up 14-7.
When the No. 23 Trojans (8-5) tied the score at 14, Smith-Marsette took the ensuing kickoff at his 2-yard line and noticed a big mistake in the USC coverage. There were only two players converging on Smith-Marsette from his left and he headed that way, avoided one tackle and outsprinted everyone else for a 98-yard touchdown, flashing a "V" sign on his way in. It was the second consecutive game with a kick return score for Smith-Marsette.
Finally, Smith-Marsette gathered a simple screen pass at the line of scrimmage, hesitated while his blockers got into position and sprinted through a big hole for a 12-yard touchdown.
That was three touchdowns in three different ways.
And the scary thought for USC?
Smith-Marsette had earlier in the second quarter taken a handoff and ran to his right before lofting a pass to Brandon Smith that was nearly a touchdown.
Smith-Marsette showed he could do it all. For good measure, he caught a 34-yard pass to set up Iowa's fifth touchdown.
USC all-American wide receiver Michael Pittman, meanwhile, was held to two catches for eight yards in the first half. He fumbled in the third quarter.
It wasn’t his night. The stage in San Diego belonged to Smith-Marsette.
Iowa won its final four games to finish 10-3. It was a third consecutive bowl victory for the Hawkeyes.
Here’s what else we learned:
Iowa offense can overcome anything
The Hawkeyes diced up a young USC defense all night. It started with senior quarterback Nate Stanley’s first completion of the game, a third-and-9 dart to Smith for 10 yards and an initial first down.
Stanley fumbled later in the drive. Tight end Nate Wieting alertly jumped on the football. But it was a nine-yard loss.
Stanley proceeded to connect with wide receiver Nico Ragaini for a 30-yard gain on the next play.
Wide receiver Tyrone Tracy finished that drive with a 23-yard touchdown on a reverse. The “exotic” play was a nice homage to former Iowa coach Hayden Fry, who died this month at age 90. It was the first of many such calls.
In the second quarter, Iowa faced a second-and-4 when it decided to commit its first offensive penalty in the game. That was followed by another. Suddenly, it was second-and-14.
No big deal.
Stanley proceeded to find Ragaini for 24 yards on the ensuing play.
Iowa gained 209 yards in the first half, converted 4 of 5 third and fourth downs and never punted.
Iowa defense finds footing eventually
On the flip side, USC’s offense found the going pretty easy as well. The Trojans, led by true freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis, put up 203 yards in the first half, 184 of them through the air.
Slovis was sacked once, by A.J. Epenesa, for a 9-yard loss. He calmly responded to pick up a first down en route to a second touchown.
The Hawkeyes did a good job limiting Pittman. But Amon-Ra St. Brown got loose for seven catches good for 97 yards.
USC did punt once in the half, right after Smith-Marsette’s kickoff return touchdown. But other than that, Iowa’s defense had a tough time keeping up.
In the second half, behind a dominating effort by Epenesa, quieted the USC attack. An Epenesa forced-fumble sack on Slovis knocked out that gifted passer in the second half, and USC was never the same.
The Iowa defense finished off a dominating second half with a pick-six by linebacker Nick Nieman off back-up Matt Fink.
Hawkeyes feature true freshmen playmakers again
Iowa offensive coordinator has been increasingly relying on true freshmen running back Tyler Goodson and tight end Sam LaPorta as the season has progressed.
They each had big moments again Friday.
Goodson got the start and was given the football eight times in the first quarter — six rushes for 13 yards and a pair of receptions for 15. No other Hawkeye got more than a single touch.
Goodson later scored on a 1-yard run. Iowa used junior Mekhi Sargent some in the first half and junior Toren Young for a change of pace in the second half. But this is clearly Goodson's backfield now.
As for LaPorta, he had three catches for 23 yards in the first half. But he really showed his value on Iowa's opening drive of the third quarter, with the Hawkeyes backed up at their 10-yard line and leading just 28-24.
The first two third-down passes went LaPorta's way. He snared both for first downs. That drive culminated in Goodson's touchdown.
LaPorta looks like the next star tight end for a university that has produced them in bulk.
Special teams ace Amani Jones sees his career cut one game short
Senior Amani Jones has been the pulse of Iowa’s special-teams units for two seasons. He plays with great enthusiasm. He packs a wallop on kick return coverage.
But Jones missed his final game with a knee injury. Barrington Wade took his place as the “gunner” on kick returns.
It might seem like a minor detail, but consider what special teams coordinator Lavar Woods said about Jones earlier in the week.
“Amani’s been a sparkplug I think. I love Amani to death. What he does. What he brings every day. The rest of the guys feed on that,” Woods said. “Opponents I’m sure game plan for him and try to figure him out. He’s a hard guy to stop on kickoff coverage.”
It never worked out for Jones at linebacker or defensive end. But he became crowd favorite for the zest he brought to special teams. It was a shame Jones couldn’t show that one final time.
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at email@example.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.
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