#16 Iowa 49, #22 USC 24: That's What It's All About

By RossWB on December 28, 2019 at 1:00 am
© Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

No bowl has been as good to Iowa as the Holiday Bowl and the Hawkeyes wrote another brilliant chapter in their Holiday Bowl history on Friday night, blowing USC off the field with a 49-24 win. Hayden Fry loved the Holiday Bowl and his Iowa teams had some of their best bowl game performances in the Holiday Bowl -- so it feels immensely satisfying that Iowa played their best game of the season in a Holiday Bowl played just 10 days after he passed away. Wins don't come much sweeter than this one. 

The first half was maybe the most perfect half of offensive football Iowa has played all season. They had four possessions -- and scored touchdowns on each possession. (Although if you want to be picky, one of the touchdowns came on a possession where the offense never touched the ball at all, as Ihmir Smith-Marsette returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown.) Iowa's offense did the two things they needed to do in this game: control possession and keep the ball away from USC QB Kedon Slovis and finish drives with touchdowns. Iowa's first drive lasted 6:35, went 10 plays and 75 yards, and ended with a Tyrone Tracy, Jr. 23-yard touchdown run on a reverse. Iowa's second drive covered 8:15, involved 15 plays for 72 yards, and ended with an Ihmir Smith-Marsette 5-yard touchdown run. That Iowa busted out a few trick plays -- or "exotics," as Hayden liked to call them -- in the form of a WR reverse and a WR pass (which came tantalizingly close to a Smith-Marsette to Brandon Smith TD pass) just made things even better and felt like a wonderful way to pay tribute to Fry.  

The problem was that USC kept answering Iowa punch for punch, first with a 4-yard TD pass from Kedon Slovis to Drake London and second with a 16-yard TD pass from Slovis to Vavae Malepeai that tied the game at 14-14. But just like he did against Nebraska in Iowa's last game, Ihmir Smith-Marsette had the perfect response to get the momentum back on Iowa's side, breaking loose on a kickoff return for 98 yards and a touchdown that gave Iowa a 21-14 lead. Iowa never trailed after that point. 

Iowa got the ball at midfield after forcing a bad punt from USC; 6 plays, 52 yards, and 3:07 later, Ihmir Smith-Marsette had his third straight touchdown, this time on a 12-yard TD reception, and Iowa had a 28-14 lead. USC did manage to make things interesting after that, grabbing a field goal before halftime and scoring a touchdown on the opening drive after halftime to cut Iowa's lead to 28-24. Things got even more interesting (and, frankly, just a little bit terrifying) when USC called a perfectly-timed onside kick -- and executed it to perfection. USC recovered the ball at their own 46-yard line and had a chance to take their first lead of the game. 

Enter: A.J. Epenesa. In what was maybe (probably?) his final appearance in an Iowa uniform, A.J. Epenesa was once again a force of nature, recording four tackles, 2.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, and countless uncalled holding penalties. (There's no point making a thing about it in a game that Iowa won by 25 damn points, but the officiating and replay review was absolutely wretched and woefully inconsistent yet again.) His forced fumble on the series after USC recovered the onside kick was one of the most pivotal plays of the game. USC ended up recovering the fumble, but Epenesa's karate chop to force the fumble ended up injuring Slovis and forcing him out of the game. That proved quite consequential. Slovis ended up 22/30 for 260 yards, 2 TD, and no interceptions, while his replacement, Matt Fink, went just 12/18 for 74 yards, no touchdowns, and an interception. Iowa still would have had a good chance to win the game even if Slovis hadn't gotten hurt -- USC's defense didn't have a ton of success in stopping Iowa's offense all game -- but there's no doubt that removing Slovis from the equation was a big boost for Iowa, given that it absolutely gutted the one part of the game that was working well for USC (their passing offense). 

Iowa forced a punt three plays after Slovis' injury -- and proceeded to go on a 14 play, 90-yard touchdown drive that covered 7:19 and restored Iowa's two-score lead. This drive ended with Tyler Goodson sliding into the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown run and featured a pair of key Sam LaPorta catches for third down conversions (something we're probably going to be seeing a lot over the next two seasons, and we couldn't be more excited about that), but it was most memorable for Brian Ferentz doing some serious flexing and calling three straight QB sneak plays. The first, on 2nd and 2 from the USC 11, covered eight (!) yards. The second, on 1st and goal from the USC 3, went for no gain. The third, on 2nd and goal from the USC 3, officially went for two yards although it sure looked like Stanley ended up in the end zone and should have had a touchdown. Another QB sneak call would have been [chef's kiss], but a TD run for Goodson had an equally excellent result. 

USC's offense went completely in the toilet after Slovis left the game. Their next eight possessions after that: 

  • punt
  • fumble
  • punt
  • fumble
  • punt
  • missed FG
  • pick-six
  • end of game

The Iowa defense stepped way the hell up in the second half and got back to doing the things that they've done so effectively under Phil Parker (and Norm Parker before him), getting critical stops and forcing turnovers. Iowa added a sixth touchdown (Stanley-to-Brandon Smith) after recovering a USC fumble at the USC 6 and scored a seventh touchdown on a Nick Niemann pick-six (their first defensive touchdown of the season!). 

To put it another way, Iowa's top output in the regular season was 48 points against Middle Tennessee State. They scored 49 points tonight -- against USC. Sure, this isn't your grandfather's USC, or your father's USC, or your older brother's USC. But they're not chopped liver, either. They were a Top 25 team entering this game and they had won 5 of their final 6 games with an offense that was operating at a very high level. Iowa stomped them anyway. And stuffing a big-name program in the garbage is always satisfying. 

There were heroes aplenty for Iowa in this game, especially Epenesa (named Defensive MVP) and Smith-Marsette (named Offensive MVP). But we'd be remiss if we didn't give a shout-out to Nate Stanley. Starting in his 39th straight game, Stanley looked locked-in from the beginning. As has often been the case during his three years as a starter, his final stats look somewhat pedestrian -- 18/27, 213 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT -- but they don't adequate describe his performance. His accuracy flagged a bit in the second half (though he was also victimized by a couple drops), but he threw some absolute dimes in the first half of the game and kept Iowa's offense humming along on those early, crucial touchdown drives. Stanley ends his career 3-0 as a starter in bowl games, a figure matched only by Ricky Stanzi among Iowa QBs. Stanley could be frustrating to watch at times over the last three years, but he provided a lot of good memories as well and it's very satisfying to see him able to go out on such a high note. 

Iowa's running game wasn't particularly spectacular on the whole -- 35 carries, 115 yards (3.3 ypc), 3 TD -- but it did enough to keep the chains moving. And it provided a few big splash plays, like the TD runs by Tracy and Smith-Marsette and a key third down run by Mekhi Sargent (not to mention Stanley's beast mode QB sneaks). Smith-Marsette showed off some phenomenal playmaking ability in this game, recording 203 total yards and scoring three touchdowns, one as a runner, one as a return man, and one as a receiver. That put him in some pretty rare territory: 

His 98-yard kickoff return gave him kick return touchdowns in back-to-back games. That also gave him an Iowa single-season record: 

And also set him to record an Iowa program record if he can record another kick return touchdown next season: 

Smith-Marsette is one of the most exciting offensive weapons Iowa has had in years, so it's been thrilling to see Iowa find ways to fully utilize his prodigious skill set over the last two games (in which he has five total touchdowns). Let's keep that going next season. 

Really, the only thing to quibble with in this game is the fact that Keith Duncan, a consensus All-American and Iowa's offensive hero all season long, didn't record a single field goal. He entered the game with 29 made field goals, just two away from tying the single-season NCAA record. Alas, he didn't get to attempt even one field goal today... because Iowa's offense was too damn good. Let's just marinate in that one for a little bit. 

So yeah: Iowa put together their most complete performance of the game and they beat the brakes off USC. If that isn't worth celebrating, we don't know what is. 


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