TAMPA, Fla. – The biggest concern heading into the Outback Bowl if you’re an Iowa fan is that a familiar script is about to unfold.
You know the script where Iowa gets exposed in a bowl game against a faster, quicker and more aggressive opponent from the Southeastern Conference, or from another conference where it’s warm.
The opponent this time is an 8-4 Mississippi State squad that is led by one of the most dominant defenses in college football.
Two years ago it was Florida who made Iowa look slow and lethargic during a 30-3 beat-down in the 2017 Outback Bowl.
Tennessee did the same thing while crushing Iowa 45-28 in the 2015 TaxSlayer Bowl.
And who can forget the 45-16 stomping by Stanford in the 2016 Rose Bowl where the Iowa players looked like they were running in sand?
In each of those defeats, Iowa looked slow, stiff and over-matched from a talent standpoint, but was also outcoached because the players shouldn’t take all the blame for a mismatch.
And speaking of coaches, Joe Moorhead is nearing the end of his first season as the Mississippi State head coach after having been Penn State’s offensive coordinator for the previous two seasons.
The Nittany Lions won both games against Iowa with Moorhead running the offense by scores of 41-14 in 2016 and 21-19 last season.
The 2016 game was so much of a mismatch that Penn State running back Saquon Barkley said afterwards that it seemed as if the Iowa players didn’t even want to be there.
In other words, Barkley hinted that the Iowa players quit, which is probably the worst thing you can say about a competitor.
“Well, we didn't play defense in 2016,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of the loss to Penn State two years ago. “Throw that one out of the window. That could have been a thousand yards instead of whatever it was.
“But we made a better showing, certainly the next time out. We competed a lot better. There's some similarities, obviously, and some differences, too, and probably the biggest similarity is they both in my mind, the quarterback was the catalyst. I think that's really obvious.”
Mississippi State’s offense isn’t as dynamic as the Penn State offense was during the two seasons under Moorhead.
Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley was equally effective as a runner and passer, whereas Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald is more one-dimensional.
The 6-foot-5, 230-pound Fitzgerald will enter Tuesday’s Outback Bowl with 3,504 career rushing yards, which is the most by a quarterback in the history of the Southeastern Conference.
But Fitzgerald’s passing leaves something to be desired. He has only thrown for 1,615 yards this season and has been intercepted 28 times during his career.
So if the Iowa defense can contain Mississippi State's rushing attack that would force Fitzgerald out of his comfort zone.
“You look at Mississippi State, you look at the amount of carries he's had relative to anybody in the conference, not just quarterbacks, you know, he is where everything starts with their offensive football team,” Ferentz said of Fitzgerald. “I felt the same way about Penn State. That quarterback is a tremendous player.”
Look for both teams to try to establish the run, but don’t be surprised if they both struggle to do so because defense is clearly the strength for both teams.
“They have been the model and blueprint for success for a long time, and I understand it's going to be a physical game against a blue collar, fundamentally sound football team," Moorhead said. "I think it's going to be one that's exciting for the fans and one that we're certainly proud to play in."
The problem with Iowa’s physical and blue collar approach is that it’s vulnerable against quick and athletic teams.
The Iowa offense is more balanced than Mississippi State’s offense as evidenced by Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley having combined to throw 49 touchdown passes over the past two seasons.
But the Iowa offense also has a tendency to unravel when the running game sputters.
And that’s the concern against Mississippi State, is what will happen if Iowa can’t sustain a rushing attack?
Stanley is better at avoiding the rush and buying time in the pocket than he used to. But he hardly qualifies as a mobile quarterback. He also will be matched against a relentless Mississippi State defense that allowed just 12 touchdowns in 12 regular-season games.
“We wouldn’t want it any other way,” Stanley said of playing a top-notch defense. “Obviously, they’re extremely talented and a top-25 defense in the country. So that’s what we want to play against.”
Hawkeye fans should hope that Stanley feels the same way at halftime of Tuesday’s game because Iowa has been plagued by starting poorly in recent bowl games.
Iowa was outscored by Tennessee, Stanford and Florida in the first half of the three aforementioned bowl games by a combined score of 80-10.
Stanley and his cohorts aren’t built to come from behind, so it is imperative that Iowa plays well early on Tuesday.
Another concern for Iowa is the absence of junior tight end Noah Fant, who declared for the 2019 NFL Draft shortly after the regular season.
Fant at the least was a decoy who helped fellow tight end T.J. Hockenson become a star this season. At his best, Fant was a big-play waiting to happen.
This game has defensive struggle written all over it, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if both teams scored fewer than 20 points.
Turnovers and field position could go a long way in determining the winner, along with special teams.
Both of the kickers could have a huge impact on the outcome of Tuesday’s game.
In fact, former Iowa offensive coordinator Don Patterson thinks senior kicker Miguel Recinos could prove to be Iowa’s most valuable player on Tuesday.
“I like Iowa’s chances if it comes down to Miguel having to make a field goal,” Patterson said
Recinos has made 15-of-20 field-goal attempts this season, while Mississippi State kicker Jace Christmann has converted on 9-of-13 attempts.
Iowa’s defense is too talented and too connected to let Mississippi State cruise to a win.
But Mississippi State’s defense is so dominant that it’s hard to see Iowa having much success on offense.
Prediction: Mississippi State 19, Iowa 17