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Iowa 27, Mississippi State 22: Hawkeyes throw down with the ‘big dog of the whole country’

TAMPA, Fla. — Iowa is a program that has chips on both shoulders. It probably wasn’t a great idea for Mississippi State players to carve those any deeper.

The Bulldogs did exactly that. It started Friday at Tampa General Hospital. Mississippi State’s star defensive players and a band of Iowa anonymous walk-ons visited kids, something the Outback Bowl does every year.

You’d think it’d be mundane handshakes between the opposing teams. It didn’t go down that way.

“At one of the hospital visits, they were talking crap to some of our younger guys, saying ‘All-American, All-American, All-American. Draft pick, draft pick, draft pick,” senior safety Jake Gervase said. “So, I think that put a little fuel on the fire.”

Maybe that made wide receiver Nick Easley a little more cutthroat. Maybe that gave unheralded players like linebacker Jack Hockaday that little extra oopmh to stick his face in a pile of Mississippi State. Gervase has made a career out of “All-American, draft pick” and yada yada yada.

“We weren’t going to give in to it, but we knew if we came out, competed and played our asses off, we’d be able to win this game,” said Gervase.

The Hawkeyes (9-4) might be able circle back to Tampa to collect their butts. They played them clean off in Tuesday’s 27-22 victory over the No. 18 Bulldogs (8-5) before 40,518 fans at Raymond James Stadium.


Don’t look at the offensive numbers. OK, take a quick peek. You’ll see Easley accounted for 104 of Iowa’s 199 yards of offense, catching eight passes with two touchdowns, including a 75-yarder that lifted Iowa’s offense out of the swamp. He won bowl MVP honors.

You’ll see that Iowa rushed for minus-15 yards — All-American and draft pick wasn’t false advertising — and you’ll wonder how that was enough.

The Hawkeye defensive line made MSU one-dimensional walking off the bus. Ends Anthony Nelson and A.J. Epenesa had 3.5 tackles for loss. Epenesa’s strip-sack set up Nate Stanley’s 15-yard TD pass to wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette in the second quarter.

MSU quarterback Nick Fitzgerald finished 14 of 32 for 152 yards, a TD and two interceptions. He was feeling the rumble as much as Stanley, who threw three TD passes and was sacked three times.

Mississippi State defensive tackle Jeffrey Simmons was unblockable Tuesday, but so were the Hawkeyes.

“It was huge. It was absolutely huge,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. “We couldn’t run the ball. We had a hard time blocking their front and felt like we were playing LSU again after the ’04 season. I really felt that way.

“But conversely, they had a hard time with their protection. Our guys kept digging up there and kept working. Factored in on turnovers, but also just field position, all those things. That was really important.”

Iowa has a roster full of grit cowboys and enough stars mixed in. Nelson, tight end T.J. Hockenson and safety Amani Hooker answered NFL questions in postgame and, no, there were no definitive statements.

Iowa can go 12 rounds.


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“It’s how we’re built,” Ferentz said. “We’ve got some guys who were highly recruited and we’ve other guys who have worked their way in and proven that they deserve to play at this level.”

The Hawkeyes were opportunistic with the three turnovers they squeezed out of the Bulldogs, scoring 17 points. They also had some good fortune. Fitzgerald, who rushed for 103 yards on 20 carries, hit wide receiver Stephen Guidry with a pass that looked like a 20-yard TD. For a second, anyway.

Guidry bobbled the ball into the air and Gervase intercepted it in Iowa’s end zone. Instead of going up 29-24 over the Hawkeyes with eight minutes left in the game, Stanley hit Hockenson on back-to-back throws for gains of 20 and 22 yards, setting up Miguel Recinos’ 40-yard field goal that give Iowa the winning margin.

“That was a huge momentum swing there,” MSU head coach Joe Moorhead said. “You don’t score a touchdown and you get three on the board and you’re up there. Instead of that, you’re taking points off the board for you.”

What does a team that would talk trash at a children’s hospital visit lack? You know it’s discipline. That showed up again and again for the Bulldogs. An unsportsmanlike conduct and a targeting fueled Iowa’s first scoring drive. A holding penalty wiped out a 51-yard gain to Iowa’s 2 with 38 seconds left before halftime.

The Bulldogs had eight penalties for 90 yards. Iowa had zero.

“I believe it was eight for us, and second time this year that the opposition didn’t have one called on them,” Moorhead said. “But that that didn’t have a factor on the game. Can’t turn the ball over. Can’t give up explosive plays. Got to score touchdowns and can’t have penalties take plays off the board.”

Can’t do any of that. You also can’t pour fuel on a fire. You know the hospital deal circulated through the Hawkeyes.

They played like it.

“Whenever you play an SEC team they always feel like they’re the big dog of the whole country,” Hooker said. “That’s going to happen. We weren’t worried about that stuff. We just wanted to come out and compete.”


The Hawkeyes will add a crystal Outback Bowl trophy to the wooden and metal ones they’ve collected in their six trips here.

You’ll have to assume they’ll be back for the butts. Played them clean off.

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