Five things to think about following Iowa’s 27-22 win over Mississippi State in the Outback Bowl:
1. The good
Iowa had a lot of nice wins on its way to a 9-4 record.
The Hawkeyes didn’t have a signature win until they earned their first victory of the season over a rated opponent on Tuesday, providing the 18th-ranked Bulldogs with a lesson in physical Big Ten football with the way they battled from start to finish in the bowl win.
That was particularly true on the defensive side of the ball, where the Hawkeyes did a decent job defending the run and rattled Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald. Not necessarily known for his passing skills, he had completed just over 52 percent of his pass attempts on the year but had shown recent growth that Iowa negated.
The Bulldogs’ senior had topped 62 percent passing and had not been intercepted while leading Mississippi State to a 4-1 record in its last five regular-season games, the lone loss at 24-0 setback to top-ranked Alabama.
While he did run for 103 of the 190 yards the Bulldogs gained on the ground, Fitzgerald connected on 14-of-32 passes and Chauncey Golston and Jake Gervase intercepted passes and Golston recovered a fumble. Iowa scored a season-high 17 points off of those turnovers.
As much as Iowa struggled offensively, gaining an average of 3.9 yards on the 51 plays it ran, Mississippi State averaged a fairly pedestrian 4.6 yards on its 74 snaps. The Hawkeyes also had five tackles for a loss, one sack, broke up five passes and recorded two quarterback hurries.
2. The even better
The way that seniors Nick Easley, Jake Gervase, Jack Hockaday, Parker Hesse and Matt Nelson closed their Hawkeye careers proved to provide a great storyline.
The walk-on to starter to storybook ending that Easley and Gervase crafted with their Outback Bowl performances has been well documented and you can read more about that at Hawkmania.com.
Easley’s career day — eight catches for 104 yards and two scores including a 75-yard touchdown reception that accounted for more than one-third of the season-low 199 yards — and Gervase’s fourth-quarter interception in the end zone followed by a pass break up on fourth down to end Mississippi State’s futile final drive were the type of efforts Iowa needed from its most veteran players to beat a rated opponent.
Coach Kirk Ferentz shed a few tears while standing in the side of the room at the postgame news conference as Easley talked about what it meant to him to be given a chance to compete at Iowa after walking on.
The Iowa coach also labeled himself proud of the relentless and resilient performances he saw throughout the line up.
Hockaday and Hesse each finished with six tackles while Nelson had four. Hesse and Nelson each finished getting credited with half a tackle for a loss during a fourth-quarter series which saw Mississippi State settle a field goal after being stopped three times after getting first-and-goal from the Iowa 1-yard line. Hesse teamed with Anthony Nelson for a 1-yard loss on second down before Matt Nelson and Gervase stopped the Bulldogs at the line of scrimmage.
3. The bad
The quality of Mississippi State’s defense had a lot to do with it, but Iowa’s offensive struggles were problematic issue throughout much of the game.
It’s hard to win football games in the first place, but winning with an offense that rushed for a minus-15 yards on 20 carries is next to unheard of.
Iowa did have Nate Stanley’s 21-of-31 game going through the air and his 24th, 25th and 26th touchdown passes, but the Hawkeyes average of -0.8 yards per carry was abysmal.
Toren Young was the only Hawkeye to gain positive yardage, picking up seven yards on three carries. His average of 2.3 yards per carry was more than two yards below what Iowa wants it backs to strive for.
The Hawkeyes converted on just one of their 11 third-down plays and most importantly proved opportunistic. Iowa turned three Mississippi State turnovers into 17 points, while the Bulldogs turned the Hawkeyes over twice and collected 13 points off those mistakes.
To its credit, Iowa did score 27 points against an opponent which had allowed that many in just one other game this season. Kentucky scored 28 points in a September win over Mississippi State.
The lack of a rushing attack and continued inconsistency in the punting game, where Colten Rastetter averaged 34.4 yards on seven punts, are areas where Iowa’s focus on growth must continue into the offseason.
4. The ugly
It shouldn’t be a surprise Mississippi State was flagged for eight penalties for 90 yards, most proving to be costly in one way or another to the Bulldogs.
Given the way a handful of veteran Mississippi State players ran their mouths to a handful of Iowa reserves during a visit to a children’s hospital a few days earlier, that lack of discipline forecast what transpired on the turf at Raymond James Stadium.
It also provided the Hawkeyes with some easy motivation. After all, why would a group of upperclassmen spend time at a children’s hospital telling a group of sophomores and redshirt freshmen about how they were going to “whoop Iowa’s asses.”
Those comments, ill advised in any way shape and form in that setting, only added additional motivation for the Hawkeyes, who played focused, penalty-free football against an undisciplined opponent which couldn’t get out of its own way when it needed to the most in the game.
5. The still to come
The final chapter to the 2018 football season has yet to be written.
Decisions that will come over the next few days from T.J. Hockenson, Amani Hooker and Anthony Nelson about their futures will shape the starting point for the Hawkeyes’ 2019 season.
All three have acknowledged receiving feedback from the NFL Draft Advisory Committee and all want to take a little time to step away from the season that just ended, talk with family members and then reach their own independent decisions about whether to return next season or declare for the NFL Draft.
Hockenson said he had a decent idea about what he going to do — pegging it at 95 percent sure — but even the Mackey Award winner wanted a little more time to get comfortable with his choice before announcing it publicly.
Hooker and Nelson both said their priority is to talk things through with family members and then reach a conclusion.
Their decisions will lead to a starting point for a 2019 team that swaps Maryland and Indiana with Michigan and Rutgers as cross-division opponents in the Big Ten and plays road games at Iowa State, Michigan, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Nebraska.