It had to go like this, right?
Nate Stanley threw for 214 yards and three touchdowns, and the Iowa defense made just enough big plays to help seal a 27-22 victory over Mississippi State in the 2019 Outback Bowl. The win finishes Iowa's season at 9-4 (5-4), and should lead to a ranking in the final AP Top 25 poll.
The rankings may not reflect it when it's all said and done, but Mississippi State is probably the best team, talent-wise, that Iowa will have faced all year. If these teams played ten times, not only would that be barbaric, but MSU would probably win a majority of them. Instead, it was Iowa with the victory—and aside from a disastrous four-minute stretch to start the second half, this wouldn't have been close.
Iowa took a 17-6 lead into the half, the beneficiary of a 75-yard bomb to a wide, wide-open Nick Easley, then a strip sack by A.J. Epenesa and a short touchdown drive on the ensuing possession. With the Hawkeyes receiving the ball in the second half, one might think Iowa could take control of the game with a long scoring drive.
— Dustin Schutte (@SchutteCFB) January 1, 2019
Instead, Stanley threw his only interception of the game, then had to make a touchdown-saving tackle inside the 10-yard line on the return. MSU turned that into a touchdown, then recovered a wild fumble by Ihmir Smith-Marsette on the ensuing kickoff. Nick Fitzgerald broke free for a 33-yard touchdown on the very next play, and just four minutes into the second half, Iowa had wasted possession and its 11-point lead. Things weren't great.
Chauncey Golston picked off a deflected screen pass shortly thereafter, however, and Iowa turned another short field into a touchdown as Nick Easley found the end zone. Iowa regained the lead at 24-19, and improbably, the Hawkeyes never let MSU back in front.
The Bulldogs certainly had opportunities to take the lead. Fitzgerald threw a 51-yard pass down to the 1-yard line early in the fourth quarter, and it took three huge goal-line stops by the Iowa defense to convince Joe Moorhead to take the short field goal with 12 minutes left. The calculation looked wise after the Bulldogs forced a 3-and-out and drove right back to the Iowa 20. Alas, the MSU receiver dropped what should have been a go-ahead touchdown, Gervase made the interception and returned it to the 28, and Iowa drove for an insurance field goal to bring us to the final score.
Mississippi State put together one last drive to threaten the Hawkeyes in the closing seconds, but Gervase stood tall again, knocking down a wild fourth-down pass to seal the game with 25 seconds left.
That was a hell of a win. Simple as that. Iowa faced one of the best defenses in the nation, full stop, without its greatest mismatch weapon at TE. The Bulldogs kept T.J. Hockenson firmly in check for most of the game, held Iowa to -15 yards rushing (including 15 rushes for 4 yards for the triumvirate of tailbacks), harassed Stanley on the pass rush all day... and Iowa still found a way to win. Iowa scored 17 of its 27 points off turnovers, including two touchdowns off short fields, and when the defense had an opportunity to seal the game on 4th down, Gervase came through. That's all a coach can ask for.
There's a lot not to like, of course. Plenty of Iowa's bad habits came through, including out-routes short of the sticks on 3rd downs — yes, plural — and a general unwillingness to throw to the middle of the field. The run game wilted against a tough defense yet again, to the point where "recruit better running backs" probably isn't the solution. 1-for-11 on third downs speaks for itself.
But that scoreboard says 27-22, the win column just went up against a ranked foe, it's the New Year, and there's one song we need to hear.
GO IOWA AWESOME.