Defense looks to be on the menu when Iowa and Mississippi State square off in the Outback Bowl in a little over two weeks, and the Bulldog defense that lines up across from the Iowa offense is going to be the best defense that Iowa has seen all year. That could be very bad news for the Iowa offense.
Mississippi State ranks first in the nation in scoring defense. They've given up an average of 12 points per game. And as impressive as that stat is, it feels like it's underselling the Bulldog defense. Mississippi State held five teams to single digit point totals this season; they held seven teams to 10 points or less; and they held nine teams to 13 points or less. Just two teams -- Kentucky and Alabama -- cracked 20 points against them. In fact, opponents scored a grand total of 12 touchdowns against them this year -- that's an average of one per game. Outside of the three touchdowns they conceded to Bama, they've given up just one touchdown in their last 19 quarters against non-Bama opponents.
Iowas scoring offense was wildly inconsistent this year.
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Iowa put up tons of points against Minnesota, Indiana, and Illinois, but they also struggled to put up points on Iowa State, Wisconsin, Maryland, and Northwestern. Their point total against Northern Illinois belies how difficult it was for Iowa to put the ball in the end zone for much of the game; Iowa led 3-0 at halftime and needed a touchdown late in the third quarter to make it 17-0. And while Iowa exceeded Penn State's average points allowed in that game, they needed a pick-six, a safety off a blocked punt, and a special teams touchdown that was set up off off another blocked punt. All of Iowa's points in that game were scored via field goals, a safety, an interception return touchdown, and a touchdown off a fake field goal. Iowa's own offense was unable to put the ball in the end zone against Penn State.
In fact, against the top five scoring defenses they faced this year (NIU, ISU, Wisconsin, Penn State, and Northwestern) Iowa's offense averaged just 19.4 ppg. That figure slips to 11.2 ppg if you look at just the touchdowns scored by Iowa's offense in those games. Now that offense is set to face the stingiest defense they've faced all year. Gulp.
Not surprisingly, one of the biggest reasons for Mississippi State's stunning scoring defense numbers is because of their lockdown work in the red zone. Overall, teams are scoring on just 71.9% percent of their trips inside the MSU 20-yard line; that ranks 5th in the nation. They've allowed 32 trips inside their own 20-yard line, which ranks 16th nationally. But they've been unbelievably good at keeping opponents out of the end zone once they get into the red zone. Opponents have scored touchdowns on just 8 of those 32 trips inside the MSU 20. That 25% touchdown conversion rate ranks tops in the country, as does the 8 total touchdowns they've allowed to opponents in the red zone. Teams haven't had many chances to score in the MSU red zone and when they have they've rarely been able to get touchdowns.
By comparison, Iowa has allowed fewer trips inside the red zone (26, which 3rd best nationally), but they've done a worse job of keeping opponents out of the end zone when they get there. Opponents have scored touchdowns on 17 of 26 trips inside the Iowa 20, a conversion rate of 65.4% (85th nationally). Overall they've scored on 21 of 26 red zone trips, converting 80.8% of their chances (42nd nationally).
Meanwhile, Iowa has also had some struggles when their offense is in the red zone. Iowa ranks 57th in red zone conversion rate (84.9%) and they've scored on 45 of 53 trips inside opponents' 20-yard lines. They've scored touchdowns on just 36 of 53 trips, a 67.9% conversion rate that rates 33rd nationally. Red zone failures have loomed costly in nearly all of Iowa's losses, though; they went 3/4 inside the 20 against Wisconsin, 2/3 against Penn State (and I'm sure you remember the failed conversion there), and 0/1 against Northwestern. (They actually went 6/6 in the red zone against Purdue, including touchdown on five of those trips; for all Iowa's flaws in that game, red zone production was not one of them). Most recently, Iowa went 4/6 inside the red zone against Nebraska and the failed conversions there might have proved costly if not for Miguel Recinos' game-winning kick. The three best red zone defenses Iowa has faced this year were Penn State, Northwestern, and Iowa State; Iowa went 4/7 in the red zone in those three games, with two touchdowns -- and one of the touchdowns came via the fake field goal against Penn State. So on one side you've got an offense that's had some critical red zone hiccups against one of the stingiest red zone defenses in the country (and the stingiest when it comes to allowing touchdowns).
Mississippi State also poses a huge threat from a yardage standpoint. The Bulldogs are third nationally in terms of total yards per game (268.4) and second nationally when it comes to yards per play allowed (4.14). They squeeze the life out of opposing offenses on a per-play basis better than every team in the country except Clemson.
Iowa's offense, on the other hand, didn't exactly light it up from a yardage standpoint this season.
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Iowa averaged 5.53 yards per play this season, which ranked 77th nationally. The average ranking in terms of yards per play was about 5.7 to 5.8 yards per play. Worryingly, Iowa only hit that figure in 5 of 12 games this season -- and only barely in the Purdue and Nebraska games. Also concerning? Iowa's yards per play average was lower than their opponent's average yards per play conceded in 8 of 12 games this year. Sometimes the difference was fairly minimal (as in the Purdue, Northwestern, or Nebraska games), but still. Iowa's offense only moved the ball at an elite rate in about three games this year -- against Wisconsin (seriously), Indiana, and Illinois.
Most ominous is Iowa's production (or lack thereof) against the best defenses they saw from a yards per play standpoint. Northern Illinois, Iowa State, and Penn State all rank in the Top 30 in the nation when it comes to yards per play allowed -- and Iowa's production in those games was below what two of those three teams allow on average (and only a bit above NIU's average yards per play allowed). Also, when you're hitting the 4s in yards per play you're talking about some of the absolute worst offenses in the nation. Northern Illinois averaged 4.57 yards per play on offense in 2018, a total "good" for 127th in the nation... which is still more than Iowa mustered in three games this year.
Now Iowa's offense has to solve the challenge of Mississippi State's defense, which was far stingier than even the stingiest defense Iowa faced this year on a yards per play basis. They held six opponents this year under 4.0 yards per play. The most any team averaged against them was Florida, who mustered 5.41 yards per play in a 13-6 win over the Bulldogs. LSU was held to 3.32 yards per play. The potent Texas A&M offense was limited to 4.31 yards per play. And even mighty Bama was held to 4.24 yards per play, almost a full three yards below their season average (7.92).
Mississippi State's defense is probably the best defense Iowa has seen since Wisconsin and Ohio State last year and Michigan and Florida (also in the Outback Bowl) in the 2016 season. The good news is that Iowa managed to win two of those four games. The bad news is that those two wins were in the friendly confines of Kinnick Stadium and one of them was a testament to the power of Kinnick mojo and an outstanding example of Iowa's bend-but-don't-break defensive philosophy in action and the other was one of the most inexplicably brilliant Iowa performances of all-time in the last 30 years.
The worse news is that the two losses were away from Kinnick Stadium -- and featured two of the most inept offensive performances we've ever seen from Iowa. The Wisconsin loss was truly historically awful -- that was the game where Iowa's offense mustered 66 yards on 50 plays (a truly pathetic 1.32 YPP average) and their only points came via two Josh Jackson pick-sixes. That Outback Bowl was the one where Iowa averaged 3.48 yards per play and lost to Florida 30-3.
On paper, the omens for Iowa's offense in this game do not look good. (And I haven't even mentioned that Iowa's offense will be without one of its most productive and dangerous weapons in this game.) Fortunately, games aren't played on paper and past results don't automatically doom the future. But for Iowa to win this game it looks like they're either going to need to come up with one of their sharpest offensive performances in recent memory -- or get more than a little help from the defense and special teams. The only thing more relentless than the banging of the cowbells on New Year's Day might be the Mississippi State defense.