Iowa Football

No. 16 Iowa vs. No. 22 USC: The Big Analysis, Holiday Bowl edition

USC's big play potential is the wild card; Iowa's pass rush is what needs to come through for the Hawkeyes

Iowa takes on USC in the Holiday Bowl on Friday.
Iowa takes on USC in the Holiday Bowl on Friday.

The Hawkeyes have a chance to win 10 games. If they don’t, it’ll be one 10-win season in the last 10 years.

Now, this is not an indictment. It’s more to note that 10 wins aren’t laid by chickens around these parts. Since going 11-2 in 2009, Iowa’s lone visit to the 10-plus club was, of course, 2015, a 12-2 and Big Ten West Division championship.

Basically, Friday’s Holiday Bowl is bigger than you think for No. 16 Iowa (9-3). The 10 wins would be nice. A victory over No. 22 USC (8-4) would rank as Iowa’s best this season (yes, better than Minnesota, if we’re going purely on status).

A bowl victory is status you want going into the long offseason. It certainly helps keep everyone interested.

USC Trojans

1. Pushing the buttons — USC signed offensive coordinator Graham Harrell to a three-year contract extension last week. After being fired at Texas Tech, Kliff Kingsbury took the USC coordinator’s job, but then he was offered the Arizona Cardinals head coach position. The Cardinals wanted the “Air Raid” passing offense for quarterback Kyler Murray.

So, before Kingsbury had a desk in Los Angeles, he was off to Phoenix and so now here’s Harrell.

The numbers shot up this season, with the Trojans ranking 18th in the nation in total offense with 462 yards per game. Harrell is most certainly on a heading coaching track.

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2. Kedon Kedon Kedon — Not long after the guy who was supposed to be offensive coordinator bolted, quarterback J.T. Daniels suffered a torn ACL in the opener against Fresno State. So, now here was a new offensive coordinator and a freshman quarterback named Kedon Slovis. This is where 4-8 flashed in front of everyone’s eyes.

But, no, Slovis turned out to be great and it looks like Harrell knows what he’s doing with the Air Raid. Slovis completed 71 percent of his passes this season (260 of 362). He had 28 TDs to just nine interceptions and 3,242 yards. He was named the Pac-12’s freshman of the year.

One fun fact here: Slovis had Kurt Warner as his offensive coordinator and QB coach at Scottsdale (Ariz.) Desert Mountain High School. Yes, that Kurt Warner.

3. The best passing offense Iowa will have faced this season — What really, really has to come through for an offense with a new coordinator and a new starting QB? The wide receivers, of course.

This group pushed the USC passing game to No. 6 in the country, averaging 335.9 yards a game (the 71.0 percent completion percentage is No. 5 in the nation).

Senior Michael Pittman drove this group with 95 receptions for 1,222 yards and 11 TDs. It doesn’t stop with Pittman. There’s Amon-Ra St. Brown (68 catches, 879 yards and six TDs). There’s Tyler Vaughns (68 catches, 858 yards and six TDs). This big three was a point of interest for the Iowa secondary this week.

Iowa Hawkeyes

1. The 4-2-5 rides in again — Yes, this is going to be a game where defensive coordinator Phil Parker calls on the 4-2-5 defense probably a lot.

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In addition to high-caliber performers at WR, the Trojans play a lot of 10 (one running back, no tight ends) and 11 (one back, one tight end) personnel. Since the late October game against Northwestern, Iowa has run a ton of 4-2-5 with true freshman Dane Belton playing the cash safety position. Belton ended up playing more snaps than any true freshman at 364, with 139 of those coming in the last two games (Illinois and Nebraska).

Yes, Phil Parker's Iowa secondary is a competitive bunch fueled by trust earned

Against, the pass this year, Iowa’s 4-2-5 came up with successful plays at a 52-percent rate. And for the second straight year, it was Iowa’s most popular alignment with opposing offenses seeing it 74 percent of the time.

2. One last game of chicken with the running game — USC is young on the defensive front. The Trojans start three sophomores and two freshmen in the linebackers and defensive line. That probably explains the 1,995 rushing yards allowed (Iowa has allowed 1,441 for comparison) and the 4.58 yards per carry (89th in the country).

Now, can Iowa find consistent success? The inconsistency this season has had to have been maddening for all involved. Ten sacks held Iowa to 1 rushing yard at Michigan. The high was 351 yards against Middle Tennessee State.

The 225 yards and 7.3 yards per carry at Nebraska were a good sign. Iowa hit 4.5 yards per carry or above just four times this season. It’s the big thing on the agenda for 2020.

3. Pass rush won the Outback, can it come through here? — The Hawkeyes were credited with just one sack in last year’s Outback Bowl victory over Mississippi State. It was a strip sack by defensive end A.J. Epenesa and it led to points. Beyond that, the Hawkeyes relentlessly pressured MSU quarterback Nick Fitzgerald and caused mistakes.

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“If they get you in third-and-long, they are elite,” USC head coach Clay Helton said Thursday. “I truly believe their pass rush on third down allows them to play advantage coverages because they can rush four and get to you, and that’s always a deterrent for offenses.”

Holiday Bowl prediction

Iowa 27, USC 24

One-dimensional offense against Iowa’s pass rush. USC’s big-play potential is the wild card.

Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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