Iowa Football

Outback Bowl Play Action: Iowa vs. Mississippi State analysis

Mississippi State has a fearsome defense and the numbers to back it up; Iowa's offense does not

Iowa faces No. 18 Mississippi State on Tuesday in the Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla. (The Gazette)
Iowa faces No. 18 Mississippi State on Tuesday in the Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla. (The Gazette)

The Hawkeyes (8-4) enter their sixth Outback Bowl against No. 18 Mississippi State (8-4) looking to end a three-game losing streak against the SEC. The collective scores in those game is 96-44, but this streak has aged in a barrel, stretching from the 2014 Outback (21-14 to LSU), the 2014 TaxSlayer (45-28 Tennessee) and the 2017 Outback (30-3 Florida).

This is a new year. Like the first day of a new year. So, let’s not attach too much weight to past results, but let’s also realize that Iowa teams just don’t roll out of bed and beat the SEC (last victory was against a fairly disinterested Steve Spurrier South Carolina team in 2009).

Kickoff is 11 a.m. Tuesday at Raymond James Stadium. The game is on ESPN2.

The Bulldogs vibe

1. One NFL prospect that did play in the bowl — Just Iowa’s luck, huh? In a sea of early departures for the NFL, Mississippi State defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons announced that he would skip his senior year earlier this month and along with that said, let’s bowl. He’s 6-foot-4, 310 pounds and could be a top-10 pick in the NFL draft this spring.

Defensive end Montez Sweat and safety Jonathan Abram are seniors and likely draft picks. They easily could’ve skipped the bowl to prepare to make money, but credit first-year coach Joe Moorhead and defensive coordinator Bob Shoop for instilling a culture that made them want to stay. Jim Harbaugh couldn’t pull that off.

2. It’s not just Simmons — The Bulldogs have a prototypical SEC defensive line. Large, athletic and, well, you see the numbers. The No. 1 scoring defense in the nation (a team stat, to be sure), fourth in the SEC in sacks (linebackers show up in these numbers, so they’re not just there to stop the run) and second in the league in tackles for loss.

Simmons, Sweat and end Gerri Green combined for 34.5 tackles for loss.

3. Another Fitzgerald headache for the Hawkeyes — Maybe Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald does talk to the Packers. Maybe not. For sure, Iowa has MSU quarterback Nick Fitzgerald to contend with in this game.

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Maybe at the end of this, Fitzgerald and Iowa QB Nate Stanley can compare horrific social media posts directed at them from their fan bases. It’s tough on the QB when the defense is outstanding and the offense struggles. Last November, Fitzgerald endured one of those ghastly football injuries where the ankle ends up pointing the wrong direction. He rebounded to lead MSU in rushing with 1,018 yards (fourth in the SEC).

Sounds like the consummate gamer. If he has to take a pole vault and dynamite out there to beat you, he will try.

4. Part of the QB’s job is taking crap for things that don’t work — That would be the Bulldogs’ passing game. Head coach Joe Moorhead got the MSU job because he orchestrated a magnificent offense at Penn State. This is year 1 with his system. He’s in the “playing to the players he has on hand” mode, and that is read-option and Fitzgerald’s rushing. MSU finished 13th in the SEC in passing (175.6 yards per game). His completion percentage is 52.6, last in the SEC and not in the top 100 in the nation.

The high-side compare is Penn State’s Trace McSorley as a runner.

5. Relevant numbers — MSU returned 76 career starts in its O-line this season. That experience shows. The Bulldogs averaged 5.76 yards per carry on 472 carries. MSU isn’t balanced, but the one thing the offense does can slap some game control on you. Speaking of which, the Bulldogs finished 40th in the country in time of possession at 30:59.

What’s happening with the Hawkeyes?

1. The middle of the OL is under the gun — We’ve talked about Simmons. Iowa center Keegan Render knows what’s up. “The key technique-wise is being right on everything,” Render said. “Someone like that is going to expose the one little flaw that maybe someone not as skilled can’t expose.”

Render and guards Ross Reynolds and Cole Banwart will be tasked with funneling Simmons and trying to land second-level blocks. If that doesn’t work, how long can Iowa try to stick with the inside zone? Probably not very long.

Big matchup here.

2. What’s up with two TE sets minus Fant? — Iowa leaned into two-tight end sets this season. It had Mackey Award winner T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant and his athleticism and 19 TDs. It still has Hockenson. Fant declared for the NFL. So, Iowa can now stick with two-TE sets and plug in junior Nate Wieting as the inline TE with Hockenson splitting out or really allow wide receivers Nick Easley, Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette to show what they can do.

Iowa’s pass protection was its most improved offensive element this season (only 13 sacks allowed, first in the Big Ten and eighth in the nation). That’s going to be a challenge vs. the Bulldogs.

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“If you’re trying to run your offense through one player, then you’re going to be sorry at the end of the day,” offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz said. “Certainly, it’s going to change some of our personnel groupings and things like that, give some other guys some opportunities to make some plays, really I think it’s a positive for us.”

Losing an explosive playmaker for the bowl game is not a positive. It’ll be interesting to see if the Hawkeyes have a plan B if the straight-up running game doesn’t work.

3. Can Stanley unlock? — There’s a lot to like about a QB who’s thrown 49 TDs to just 15 interceptions in two seasons as a starter, but Stanley will be the first to admit there’s work to do. The completion percentage (58.6, seventh in the Big Ten), the inconsistency in the pocket, the footwork, that’s not all getting fixed before Tuesday.

So, what then? Stanley needs to stay within himself and keep his steady mental edge. Iowa’s reactive offense invites a lot of adversity. Stanley has dealt well with that at times.

The NFL wasn’t weighing heavily on him, but now that he’s settled for next season, maybe he can find a flow vs. the Bulldogs. If you walk away from this game thinking “Man, Stanley made the people around him look really good,” then the Hawkeyes probably won.

That’d be a great goal for Tuesday and beyond.

4. Edgework — Do you get a Northwestern vibe from MSU’s offense? Decent QB, decent with his feet. A pair of good-sized running backs in Kylin Hill (5-11, 215) and Aeris Williams (6-1, 215).

Iowa has been strong up the middle. Again, if it can keep lanes closed between the tackles, it can limit the options Fitzgerald will have on his reads. If it can hold down the middle and spill run plays to the edge, it makes for an easier read and alignment can help the inside linebackers in edge defense.

Now, Iowa is coming off a poor performance against a mobile QB. Nebraska’s Adrian Martinez rolled up 336 yards, including 76 rushing yards.

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Look for Fitzgerald and MSU to try to get matchups on Iowa’s inside linebackers. The Hawkeyes have hung in there, but Moorhead is an excellent offensive mind and he’s had a month to watch tape. Iowa didn’t perform well here vs. Nebraska.

5. Relevant numbers — When the Hawkeyes’ offense has gone into trudge mode this season, the successful plays have been elusive. Let’s track that Tuesday. How often can the Hawkeyes get 50 percent of needed yards on first down, 70 percent of needed yards on second down and 100 percent of needed yards on third or fourth down? Field position will be a silent determining factor, but Iowa’s offense has to treat every possession with an urgency to score points.

Points against an SEC opponent in the Outback Bowl. It’s pretty much all that matters.

Also, explosive plays have been hit and miss for this offense. Iowa finished with 47 20-plus plays this season, 11th in the Big Ten. That was with Fant. Tough to trust Iowa’s offense to put together drives against one of the nation’s best defenses.

Prediction

Mississippi State 19, Iowa 16

Every time Iowa settles for a field goal, it’s a dagger.

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

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