SAN DIEGO — The really hard part for the Hawkeyes late in this Holiday Bowl was picking the MVP.
If you’re into ranking Iowa’s Holiday Bowls, this is No. 1. Iowa didn’t need a field goal with no time left. It didn’t need to block a late field goal. And you already knew it wasn’t going to be a tie.
Head coach Kirk Ferentz and his team can have the bowl MVP debate all offseason and make jokes about it.
Wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette did something in an Iowa uniform that has’t happened since at least 1970. But then there was defensive end A.J. Epenesa, who had 2.5 sacks and knocked the starting QB out of the game on a strip sack. Quarterback Nate Stanley played perfectly and had two TD passes.
Officially, Smith-Marsette and Epenesa were named offensive and defensive MVPs of the game.
No. 22 USC (8-5) didn’t know what hit it. No. 16 Iowa (10-3) kept hitting anyway.
The Hawkeyes scored touchdowns on their first five drives and controlled the Trojans, 49-24, before 50,123 fans at San Diego County Credit Union Stadium.
With the Hawkeyes mourning the death of legendary Iowa head coach Hayden Fry — taking the Tigerhawk decals off their helmets for the game — you have to think there was a Hokey Pokey and if you placed a vote for Fry as MVP, no one would argue.
USC fell apart after freshman QB Kedon Slovis was knocked out of the game early in the second half. The Hawkeyes held USC to 17 rushing yards and that’s pretty much how the game went.
Smith-Marsette took the mic in the second quarter and sang his karaoke the loudest.
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First, there was the 6-yard reverse for a touchdown to give the Hawkeyes a 14-7 lead. In the first half, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz had stuff USC hadn’t seen.
Iowa attacked with multiple reverses. The Hawkeyes took a 7-0 lead on a double reverse with Smith-Marsette tossing his reverse handoff to fellow wide receiver Tyrone Tracy, who scored from 23 yards for a 7-0 lead.
USC has that offense. Slovis has that arm and the Trojans have those wide receivers. With 6:03 left in the first half, Slovis burned linebacker Djimon Colbert on a 16-yard TD pass to running back Vavae Malepeai to tie the game at 14-14.
Smith-Marsette was still holding the mic. Up next was his big solo.
Smith-Marsette’s 98-yard kick return was his classic move. He started in the middle of the field. USC’s defenders sucked into the middle and then Smith-Marsette did his move, the big cut to his left. It’s worked at Nebraska a couple of times. Smith-Marsette went untouched for 98 yards to give the Hawkeyes a 21-14 lead.
That’s a rushing TD and a return TD for Smith-Marsette. He finally got to the conventional wide receiver TD with 1:18 left in the second quarter. He took a tunnel screen pass from Stanley and then he slithered through blockers and defenders and didn’t look like he was touched, scoring to give the Hawkeyes a 28-17 halftime lead.
Here’s some of what Smith-Marsette accomplished in the second quarter: His 98-yard kick return tied the longest in Holiday Bowl history. And he became the first Hawkeye to score TDs three different ways since at least 1970.
As cool as Smith-Marsette’s scoring the hat trick was, Iowa was going to need more.
The biggest sequence of the game was the beginning of the third quarter. USC opened the second half with a waltz down the field. The Trojans pulled within 28-24 on running back Stephen Carr’s 2-yard run that closed out a drive that was fueled by Slovis’ 55-yard pass to Amon St. Brown.
The drive took just 1:13 off the clock. And then the Trojans executed a perfect onside kick that Iowa wasn’t ready for. First down and a mountain of momentum belonged to USC as it took over at the 50. This was the sweaty time for Iowa.
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As it has all season long, Iowa’s defense doused the flames. The Hawkeyes held USC to four plays and a punt. Also, Epenesa sacked and stripped a fumble out of Slovis, who suffered an upper-body injury during the play and didn’t return. Backup QB Matt Fink was nervous in the pocket, mostly because the Trojans couldn’t deal with Epenesa. Also, defensive coordinator Phil Parker hit home runs with blitz calls, particularly with linebacker Nick Niemann, who collected a sack and a pick-6.
And, no, USC’s offense wasn’t the same after that.
With all of the reviews and a halftime fireworks show that ran a little long, an ice-cold Iowa offense finally hit the field. All it did was put up one of its best drives of the season.
First, punt returner Max Cooper bobbled the return, but pounced on it. Disaster averted. It was almost as important as tight end Nate Wieting’s recovery of a strip sack in the first quarter.
Iowa took over at its 10 and marched the 90 yards in ... well, almost half of the third quarter, a 7:19 whopper. Smith-Marsette sung a tune in this one, too, catching a fantastic pass from Stanley for a 34-yard gain to USC’s 19. Tyler Goodson quickly punched it in from a yard out, sucking out whatever drama remained. It was Hokey Pokey time.
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