Iowa won the Outback Bowl -- hooray! But how exactly did they do it? With some of the stranger stats you'll ever see in a win. Let's take a look at some of them.
As in, Iowa ran the ball for -15 yards rushing against Mississippi State. Sure, that includes sack yardage against Nate Stanley, but Iowa's running backs weren't exactly lighting it up against the ferocious Bulldog front seven. Toren Young had three rushes for a team-high 7 yards, Ivory Kelly-Martin had five rushes for 0 yards, and Mekhi Sargent had seven carries for a ghastly -3 yards; combined they had 15 carries for four yards. And yet... Iowa won the game.
Dating back to the start of the 2010 season, Iowa was 1-26 in games in which they ran for less than 100 yards and they'd lost 23 games in a row in that situation. (The last win? The 2011 game against Pitt when James Vandenberg went bananas and threw for 399 yards.) And even when they'd been held under 100 yards, they'd never been held to negative yards rushing. Last year's Iowa running game produced two notably impotent performances -- 19 yards on 25 carries against Michigan State and 25 yards on 26 carries against Wisconsin -- and those were still around 40 yards better than what Iowa managed on Tuesday. Per Iowa stat guru Matt Benson, Iowa's -15 rushing yards tied the mark for the fewest rushing yards in a bowl win since 2000.
You have to go back to 2009 to find a season when Iowa won multiple games with less than 100 yards rushing (they went 4-2 in such games that year) and, really, that 2009 model of winning seems a lot like what we saw in the Outback Bowl. A quarterback capable of making both brain-splittingly bad throws (the near-pick six to start the third quarter) and clutch plays (the fourth down scramble, the passes to Hockenson on Iowa's last scoring drive, the touchdown passes to Smith-Marsette and Easley)? Check. A running game that's easily stymied? Check. A ferocious defense that keeps the other team in check and can generate turnovers? Check. That was a winning formula for Iowa more often than not in 2009 and it was again in the Outback Bowl.
Iowa was also outgained by 205 yards on the ground in this game, as Mississippi State ran for 190 yards behind Nick Fitzgerald's 103 yards. I don't know what the last game was where Iowa ran for negative yards and won was, but I'd imagine it's about as hard to find as a game where Iowa was outgained by over 200 rushing yards and still managed to win.
As in, Iowa's number of penalties in the Outback Bowl. Iowa was one of the least-penalized teams in the nation this year (they ranked 18th in penalties per game at 4.7), so it wasn't a surprise to see them with a low number of penalties, but it's always striking to see a team never get penalized even once. There's some luck involved in that, given how subjective holding and pass interference penalties can be, but it speaks to the discipline and focus Iowa had in this game. There were no silly motion penalties or false start calls or delay of game issues. That's good because given how hard it was for Iowa's offense to move the ball, the last they needed to do was hurt themselves with penalties. Likewise, their defense didn't need to do Mississippi State's offense any favors and help them move the ball, either.
Conversely, Mississippi State was dinged for eight penalties for 90 yards, many of which proved very beneficial to Iowa. Iowa's first scoring drive, a second quarter field goal, was set up in large part by a pair of 15-yard personal foul penalties on the Bulldogs. A rarely-called offensive facemask penalty negated a 12-yard Mississippi State run in the second quarter; one play later, A.J. Epenesa smoked Nick Fitzgerald and caused a fumble which Iowa recovered; two plays later Iowa had a 17-6 lead. There was also a holding penalty that erased a huge Mississippi State pass play late in the first half.
There were five total turnovers in the Outback Bowl and they were pivotal for both teams. All five turnovers led to scoring drives for the team that recovered the turnover. Iowa scored 17 points off three Mississippi State turnovers, while Mississippi State scored 13 points off Iowa's two turnovers. Those turnovers led to so many points because they resulted in a lot of short fields.
Mississippi State's first turnover was a fumble that Iowa recovered on the MSU 13-yard line; they scored a touchdown two plays later. Their second turnover was an Iowa interception that Iowa returned to the MSU 32-yard line; Iowa scored another touchdown six plays later. And MSU's final turnover was Jake Gervase's end zone interception, which he returned to the Iowa 28-yard line. Six plays and 50 yards later, Iowa got a lead-extending field goal. Iowa's first turnover, Stanley's interception, set Mississippi State up at the Iowa 6-yard line; they scored three plays later. Iowa's second turnover, Smith-Marsette's fumbled kickoff return, set MSU up at the Iowa 33-yard line; they scored one play later.
Outside of the turnover-led scoring drives, the scoring was Iowa 10, Mississippi State 9. These teams struggled to move the ball without the assistance of turnovers, too. Not counting the 1-play, 75-yard scoring "drive" that involved the Stanley TD bomb to Easley, Iowa's longest drive of the day that wasn't started by a turnover was a 10-play, 49-yard drive in the second quarter that resulted in a field goal -- and that drive was aided by two 15-yard penalties against the Bulldogs. Mississippi State's longest drive without the aid of a turnover was a 5-play, 49-yard drive that resulted in a field goal early in the fourth quarter. The only reason the scoring in this game was in the 20s was because of the defenses and the turnovers they generated. Left to their own devices, these offenses would have struggled mightily to top 15 points apiece.
As in, the 75-yard touchdown pass that Nate Stanley and Nick Easley connected on in the second quarter to give Iowa a shocking 10-6 lead. That pass play was Iowa's longest play from scrimmage this season; their previous long play had been a 65-yard reception by Noah Fant in the Purdue game. Mississippi State hadn't given up any plays of 50+ yards for the entire season; the longest play they had conceded was a 47-yard reception by Arkansas' La'Michael Pettway. They gave up just five plays of 40+ yards for the entire season. That Stanley-to-Easley TD pass was one of the most shocking plays of the season -- for either team. Iowa didn't have plays like that on offense all season and Mississippi State didn't concede plays like that all season.
So yeah: strange, strange game. But I think this game ended up being what we expected: in a game with two very stout and evenly-matched defenses, it was likely to come down to other factors, and that's what happened on Tuesday. Turnovers, penalties, and one freakish* big play on offense made the difference for Iowa.
*I say "freakish" based on the lack of explosiveness Iowa's offense had showed all year, as well as the Mississippi State defense's year-long ability to suppress explosive plays. The play itself wasn't all that flukish; it was a savvy call that exploited Mississippi State's expectation of a run play that was executed to absolute perfection.