TAMPA, Fla. — Iowa’s defense forced three crucial turnovers and its offense found just enough big plays to hold off No. 18 Mississippi State 27-22 Tuesday in the Outback Bowl.
Two turnovers resulted in two touchdowns. The other, an interception by Jake Gervase in the end zone, prevented a touchdown. It was just enough to hand the Hawkeyes a second consecutive bowl victory and a 9-4 season that will almost certainly result in them being ranked in the final polls.
Nick Easley, a senior wide receiver, caught eight balls for 104 yards and two touchdowns, capping his Hawkeye career with a career day. His 75-yarder in the second quarter was the most explosive play of the game, the longest pass connection in quarterback Nate Stanley’s career and by far the longest play from scrimmage the stingy Bulldogs (8-5) had allowed this season.
Mississippi State was first in the nation in scoring defense, allowing only 12 points per game. They had not allowed a play of more than 50 yards all season.
Iowa won despite rushing for minus-15 yards. Instead, Stanley threw three touchdown passes — the other went to Ihmir Smith-Marsette — and Miguel Recinos nailed both of his field-goal attempts, each from more than 40 yards.
That was enough to send the Hawkeyes swarming to midfield at Raymond James Stadium to celebrate a three-game winning streak that ended the season.
Here’s what we learned:
EPENESA IS A HARD-CHARGING GAME-CHANGER: OK, so we already knew that. But the Hawkeye sophomore defensive end proved it again in the first half. He nearly got to Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald for a fumble early on the Bulldogs’ initial drive of the second quarter. That was ruled an incomplete pass on review, Fitzgerald’s arm just having started moving forward before Epenesa crashed into him. There was no doubt about what happened later, though, with Iowa enjoying its first lead of the game at 10-6. Epenesa used exquisite technique to break free from his position on the right of the Hawkeye line, and bulldozed an unsuspecting Fitzgerald, who coughed up the football. The Hawkeyes’ other defensive end, Chauncey Golston fell on it at the Bulldogs’ 13-yard line. Iowa scored again two plays later. Epenesa can shift momentum like no other Hawkeye defender. He finished his second season as an Iowa backup with 10.5 sacks and four forced fumbles. He’ll be starting next year for the Hawkeyes, and eventually in the NFL.
DISCIPLINE IS ALWAYS A GOOD THING: The Bulldogs repeatedly burned themselves with big penalties in the first half. On Iowa’s first scoring drive, it was a pair of 15-yard penalties that kept the chains moving. Kobe Jones was flagged for taunting after a three-yard loss that would have left the Hawkeyes with a third-and-11. Later, a two-yard completion to wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette ended with Mississippi State’s Maurice Smitherman penalized 15 yards and ejected for targeting with his shoulder. Late in the first half, the Bulldogs appeared to have their longest gain, a 51-yard catch and run by Osirus Mitchell to the Iowa 2-yard line. It was negated by a holding penalty. Mississippi State had six penalties for 70 yards in the first half. Iowa had zero. For good measure, the Bulldogs were penalized again on the opening kickoff of the second half. The Bulldogs couldn’t get out of their own way. The Hawkeyes were happy to take advantage.
SO IS BALL SECURITY: The Hawkeyes did hurt themselves in the third quarter with a pair of turnovers that allowed the Bulldogs to quickly regain the lead. Leading 17-6, the Hawkeyes got the ball and quickly watched it heading the other direction. Quarterback Nate Stanley threw an ill-advised pass that Mississippi State linebacker Willie Gay Jr. darted in to snare and head 46 yards to Iowa’s 6-yard line. The Bulldogs scored three plays later to cut the lead to 17-12. On the ensuing kickoff, Iowa returner Ihmir Smith-Marsette was loose with the football and had it jarred from his hands. Mississippi State’s Mark McLaurin recovered at Iowa’s 33-yard line. Fitzgerald scored a rushing touchdown on the next play, and in a matter of 3 minutes, 52 seconds, Iowa’s lead had evaporated.
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