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 before an announced crowd of 50,123 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.
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 was named the game’s offensive MVP, even though his biggest play may have come on special teams.
“(The return was) set up to go to the left. They had an issue with that all season. I had one guy down at my legs. I did a mini-hurdle. After that there was only one (defender). He was getting blocked already. I gave him the inside move,” Smith-Marsette said.
“I said it before, I'm not going to let no kicker catch me. Don't let the kicker catch me, the last guy. Just using my speed, got to the end zone. Turned around, thanked all my teammates.”
Smith‐Marsette tied an Iowa bowl-game record with three touchdowns. Running back Shonn Greene also did it in the 2009 Outback Bowl.
And he became the first player in program history to return two kickoffs for touchdowns in a single season after racing 95 yards for one at Nebraska.
That touchdown also came at a time when the Cornhuskers were rallying on Nov. 30. Smith-Marsette certainly has a flair for the dramatic.
“Probably game-changing as far as the kickoff return goes,” USC coach Clay Helton conceded afterward. “All of a sudden you blink your eyes, you're right back down seven.”
Iowa (10-3) constantly attacked a young Trojan defense at the edges. Wide receiver Tyrone Tracy scored the first touchdown on a reverse, bursting through a big hole for a 23-yard opening statement.
“There were some things we saw during the course of our preparation that we thought we might have a chance to get the ball on the edge,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said
“Ihmir, really glad to see him play the way he did. He hasn't been full speed here the last couple weeks. Had a couple minor things going on. Came back the last week, couple days, practiced well. Sure looked like he was full speed (Friday).”
Smith later scored a 6-yard touchdown of his own, in his first game back from a leg injury, to help Iowa win a third consecutive bowl game, with a postseason point total that was the highest in Ferentz’s 21 seasons as head coach. Smith-Marsette and he are close friends. Smith blamed himself for not making the fingertip catch on Smith-Marsette’s pass. But he said he wasn’t surprised by how quickly his buddy turned this game around.
Smith-Marsette’s three touchdowns came in a span of 10 minutes and 4 seconds.
“He’s just a fantastic athlete. Anything he sets his mind to, he can do it,” Smith said. “I just saw a spark from him. I knew that he could do it. I knew that he was capable of doing that all season. Because he’s such a great athlete and his speed is incredible.”
For good measure, Smith-Marsette caught a 34-yard pass to set up Iowa's fifth touchdown. That was the Hawkeyes’ longest play from scrimmage.
Smith-Marsette finished the season as Iowa’s touchdown leader with 10. His 203 all-purpose yards Friday gave him 2,834 for his career, 17th in program history.
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. He ended up with four catches for 45 yards in the second half.
But it was too late. The stage in San Diego had already been seized by Smith-Marsette.
“We were definitely aware that they had the big names,” Smith said of USC’s wideouts. “But we made it known throughout our position group that we were trying to outdo them.”
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.