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SportsPulse: They’ve been on a collision course all year and will finally clash in Santa Clara. From Hard Rock Stadium, Trysta Krick and our college football experts preview the annual juggernaut matchup.
USA TODAY

TAMPA, Fla. — You can’t make this stuff up.

For the second straight year, Iowa won a weird bowl game by gaining 200 or fewer yards and scoring exactly 27 points.

The Hawkeyes beat No. 18 Mississippi State 27-22 in Tuesday’s Outback Bowl before a crowd of 40,518 at Raymond James Stadium.

The Hawkeyes finished 9-4, just their second nine-win season since the Orange Bowl-winning year of 2009. They’ll finish this year as a top-25 team.

A year ago, on a frozen Yankee Stadium field, Iowa was dominated by Boston College early but outlasted all the elements and weird plays for a 27-20 win. The Hawkeyes gained 200 yards in that one; a Nate Stanley kneel-down bumped them back to 199 of total offense this time.

Iowa rushed for minus-15 yards Tuesday — and won a football game.

“It was probably the most unorthodox win I’ve ever been a part of,” fifth-year senior Keegan Render said.

The weirdness was epitomized by free safety Jake Gervase, playing his final game, collecting a tipped interception in the end zone when it looked like Mississippi State (down 24-22 at the time) was driving for the go-ahead score. By the way, Gervase had a tipped-ball interception in last year’s Pinstripe Bowl.

“We were going to have to find a way, no matter what it was,” an emotional Kirk Ferentz said. “… And that’s the essence of team football.”

You can’t make this stuff up.

It looked like insanity at first, but maybe it was genius?

Iowa was unsuccessfully insistent on running the ball on first down in the early stages of Tuesday’s game. The five runs went for (in order) minus-4, minus-5, 2, 2 and 0 yards. But then, play-action — and boom, the longest pass of Nate Stanley’s Iowa career.

Mississippi State safety Johnathan Abram bit badly, allowing slot receiver Nick Easley to run free. And Stanley hit him for a 75-yard touchdown that pushed Iowa in front 10-6 in the second quarter.

Does Easley break that open without Iowa’s predictable tendency on first down? We’ll never know for sure, but let’s just all agree that it’s easier to second-guess play-callers than it is to call plays. This was the call of the game for offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz.

And credit Stanley for not overthrowing Easley, as he did to a wide-open T.J. Hockenson earlier this year at Penn State. This one hit Easley in stride.

Easley later caught another touchdown, his 100th reception of his two-year Iowa career. He’s going to be tough to replace.

T.J. Hockenson’s first game since winning the Mackey Award was considerably quiet … until it wasn’t.

The tight end’s first target didn’t come until the 14:53 mark of the fourth quarter, and that wasn’t even catchable. But then after the stunning Gervase interception as it looked like Mississippi State would take a fourth-quarter lead, Iowa turned to Mr. Mackey.

Stanley flipped a screen to Hockenson, who broke multiple tackles for an impressive 20-yard gain. Then, a strike for 22 yards pushed Iowa into Recinos field-goal range for a 27-22 lead.

Hockenson was playing for the first time without fellow first-team all-Big Ten Conference wingman Noah Fant, who left the team to train for the NFL Draft. Coincidence or related that Hockenson was kept in check? Mississippi State’s defense certainly paid a lot of attention to the redshirt sophomore, which opened the door for Easley (eight catches, 104 yards) and others to gain pass-game traction.

The punting game needs to get better in 2019. A lot better.

The final straw might have been the attempted rugby punt by Colten Rastetter that had such a low trajectory that a linebacker retreating on the punt team “intercepted” it (not really, but he caught it) for a 12-yard punt. That result is pretty much the same as a turnover.

For the day, Rastetter mostly struggled in a game between two tough defenses that put field position at a premium. He averaged 34.4 yards on seven punts, but he did uncork a 45-yarder on his final attempt.

Ihmir Smith-Marsette showed both boom and bust potential Tuesday.

Kirk Ferentz has said multiple times he loves the spirit that the sophomore string-bean receiver brings to the football field. It was exactly that kind of spunk that cost and rewarded the Hawkeyes.

Smith-Marsette’s fumble of a third-quarter kickoff return — in which he tried to hurdle a Mississippi State defender — was unnecessary, even for the Big Ten’s return specialist of the year. The miscue turned into a one-play, 33-yard touchdown drive on a winding Nick Fitzgerald run.

Earlier, Smith-Marsette’s fight for extra yardage was rewarded.

As Iowa’s offense was struggling mightily, Smith-Marsette hauled in a short pass with little room to run. He got tripped up initially as he tried to break toward the sideline, but kept his balance to continue to claw ahead for every blade of grass he could gain. As he fought to stay on his feet, Mississippi State backup cornerback Maurice Smitherman walloped Smith-Marsette with a helmet-to-helmet hit. That was textbook targeting — a 15-yard penalty and ejection that breathed life and field position into the Hawkeyes.

The play got them into Miguel Recinos’ field-goal range, and he converted a 44-yarder to cut Iowa’s deficit to 6-3 and keep the game competitive. Then after a defensive stop came Iowa’s binge of 14 points in 53 seconds for a 17-6 lead — capped by (boom!) Smith-Marsette pulling in a 15-yard throw from Stanley.

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