Iowa hangs on to defeat No. 18 Mississippi State 27-22 in the Outback Bowl

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Iowa players Terry Roberts, Matt Hankins and Devonte Young celebrate on the field after defeating Mississippi State

By Pat Harty

TAMPA, Fla. – There was a time during his junior season in 2017 when Iowa defensive back Jake Gervase’s resolve and patience were put to the test.

He had just lost his starting position at free safety and was depressed and upset.

“Last year, when I went through that period where I got benched for a couple games I was in a dark place for a week, two weeks,” Gervase said. “But with the support of my teammates, my coaches, my family, my girlfriend, my friends, I knew that I’m not a quitter and was never going to pack it in.

“I just knew if I kept working and doing things the right way, I’d get another opportunity and things would end up working out.”

Gervase did get another opportunity and things did end up working out for the former walk-on from Davenport Assumption.

The fifth-year senior was a key piece to a Hawkeye defense that was the driving force throughout the regular season, and again on Tuesday, as Iowa defeated No. 18 Mississippi State 27-22 in the Outback Bowl.

Gervase helped to secure Iowa’s ninth victory of the season by intercepting a pass in the Iowa end zone that had ricocheted off a Bulldog receiver about midway through the fourth quarter. He then returned the interception to the Iowa 28-yard line.

That helped to launch a drive that ended with senior kicker Miguel Recinos making a 40-yard field goal that expanded Iowa’s lead to 27-22 lead with 5 minutes, 51 seconds left to play.

Mississippi State had two more offensive possessions in the fourth quarter that produced no points, and that allowed Iowa to escape from a steamy Raymond James Stadium with a gritty victory.

The Hawkeyes prevailed despite rushing for a minus-15 yards and despite converting on just 1-of-11 third down plays against Mississippi State’s vaunted and much hyped defense.

“Coming into this game and knowing the defense our offense was going against, we knew we had to play our best game as a defense,” Gervase said. “We knew we had to come out and create turnovers to put our offense in good field position.

“So it definitely helped the motivational aspect coming into the game knowing the challenge our offense faced and also the challenge we faced as a defense. It was something we were looking forward to and I think we came out and played really hard for sixty minutes in all phases of the game.”

Iowa also was motivated by what Gervase said was some trash talk and taunting by some of the Mississippi State players when both teams visited a local hospital in the days leading up to the game.. Gervase said it lit a fire that burned throughout the game.. 

The Iowa defensive players said after Tuesday’s victory that they were motivated by all the hype surrounding Mississippi State’s defense.

“We stuck together, we fought and we were flying around,” said junior strong safety Amani Hooker. “We had a couple missed tackles, but guys were playing physical.”

Tuesday’s victory showed the essence of Iowa football under head coach Kirk Ferentz as players from all sorts of different backgrounds contributed to the win.

There were former walk-ons such as Gervase and senior receiver Nick Easley who helped lead the way to victory, along with sophomore defensive end and former five star recruit A.J. Epenesa, who forced a fumble deep in Mississippi State territory that led to an Iowa touchdown in the second quarter.

Easley was named the game’s most valuable player after catching a game-high eight passes for 104 yards and two touchdowns.

His 75-yard touchdown catch with 7:55 left in the second quarter gave Iowa a 10-6 lead and showed that Mississippi State’s defense wasn’t invincible.

Easley also caught an 8-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Nate Stanley that gave Iowa the lead again at 24-19 with 1:55 left in the third quarter.

That was his 100th career reception as a Hawkeye and his team would never trail again.

“It means a ton being a part of this program,” said Easley, who played his first two seasons in college for Iowa Western Community College. “Being an Iowa Hawkeye is the best decision I’ve ever made.

“I’m so proud of this team and I’m so proud that I got the chance to be a part of this team and this program under coach Ferentz. It’s been an unbelievable ride and I’ve loved every minute of it.”

Easley grew up in Newton and turned down a scholarship offer from Iowa State in order to walk-on at Iowa with nothing more than an opportunity to prove himself.

He seized that opportunity and now has a life-time of memories to cherish.

“It’s illustrative of how we’re built,” Kirk Ferentz said. “We have other guys highly recruited and other guys that worked their way and proven that they deserve to play at this level, and it’s all about being given an opportunity.”

Gervase was asked after Tuesday’s game what he would say to somebody who was considering joining the Iowa program as a walk-on.

“You’ve got to love the game of football,” Gervase said. “It’s not easy. There are going to ups and there are going to be downs. There are going to be long days when you think about packing it in.

“But at the same time, if you work hard and do things right in the weight room, on the field and in the classroom, you’re going to have an opportunity to make a difference. Just work your ass off day in and day out, and if you do that, you won’t have any regrets. Things will work out for you.”

This Iowa team was so close to having a special season, considering its four losses to Wisconsin, Penn State, Purdue and Northwestern were by a combined 23 points.

The players could have packed it in, but they stayed the course instead, showing resilience and determination.

They also could have folded in the third quarter after Mississippi State scored two touchdowns in just 18 seconds that quickly erased a 17-6 halftime deficit.

But just like during the regular season, Gervase and his cohorts stayed the course and found a way to overcame adversity.

“That’s kind of been the way that is has been for us all year, just kind of stay calm and collected and know that every game we’re going to play in is going to be a four-quarter game and go down to the wire,” said Stanley, who competed 21-of-31 passes for 214 yards and three touchdowns against a defense that had allowed just five touchdown passes during the regular season. “Just realize that during the course of the game there are going to be ups and downs, but stay the course and just go out there and make the next play.”

This marks the seventh time that Iowa has won at least nine games under Ferentz.

The seniors also combined to win 37 games during their careers, and sending them out on a high note was a major part of the motivation heading into Tuesday’s game.

“They mean the world to me,” Stanley said of the seniors. “There are a lot of great guys in the senior class, great role models for me coming in, a lot of guys that I’ve looked up to and a lot of guys that I continue to look up to. I’m going to miss them.”

So will the Iowa fans, and for good reason.