Staunch Iowa defense awaits USC in Holiday Bowl

NCAA Football
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The 42nd edition of the Holiday Bowl, played Friday at SDCCU Stadium in San Diego, will feature a stylistic clash between No. 16-ranked Iowa and No. 22 Southern California.

Iowa (9-3), playing in its fourth-ever Holiday Bowl and first since 1991, brings the nation’s No. 5-ranked scoring defense and a methodical offense to the West Coast. The Hawkeyes have ridden their physical style to the cusp of 10 wins for what would be the sixth time in coach Kirk Ferentz’s 21 seasons at the helm.

Ferentz is one of only two head coaches at Iowa in the past 41 years, taking over in 1999 for Hall of Fame member Hayden Fry. Fry died on Dec. 17 at age 90. The Hawkeyes will remove their helmet decals for the bowl game in tribute to Fry.

“I just can’t begin to describe the impact he had on the state of Iowa,” Ferentz said in a press conference. “I got (to Iowa as an assistant) his third year. At that point they had 19 straight losing seasons in Iowa football history. The impact, the way he captured the hearts and minds of people in our state, it was really evident. Then the good things started to happen after that.”

The good things included three Big Ten Conference championships, as well as the Holiday Bowl appearances in 1986, 1987 and 1991. The third trip pitted Iowa against an opponent not unlike the 2019 Hawkeyes’ foe.

The late LaVell Edwards’ BYU team, with 1990 Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Ty Detmer, ran a pass-heavy offense that served as something of a forerunner for the Air Raid look USC adopted this season.

This Iowa team is led by Nate Stanley, who is finishing his third season at quarterback for the Hawkeyes. His receivers — Nico Ragaini, Tyrone Tracy, Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith — combined for 155 catches and 13 touchdowns on the season. Running backs Tyler Goodson, Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young combined for nine touchdowns.

The Hawkeyes lost their three games by a combined 14 points, and they’re known for their defense. The Hawkeyes are 11th nationally in pass defense, 12th in total defense and 24th in rushing defense.

That defense will meet a vastly improved Trojan offense.

Head coach Clay Helton’s hire of offensive coordinator Graham Harrell in the offseason led to increases from 26.1 points and 249.1 passing yards per game a season ago, to 33.2 points and 335.9 passing yards per game in 2019.

At the heart of the Trojans’ passing-game resurgence, freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis — thrown into the lineup midway through the season-opener for injured JT Daniels — finished the regular season eighth in nation with 294.7 passing yards per game.

USC (8-4) will look to attack Iowa with a multifaceted receiving look, primarily featuring Tyler Vaughns, Amon-Ra St. Brown and Biletnikoff Award finalist Michael Pittman Jr. Pittman caught 95 passes for 1,222 yards and 11 touchdowns.

The revamped USC passing offense will remain as is next season, the result of some coaching rumors gaining clarity in the weeks before the bowl game. New athletic director Mike Bohn announced the retention of Helton for 2020 despite months of speculation the coach would be released.

Then, after his name was linked to the offensive coordinator vacancy at Texas, Harrell remained with USC.

“We had that team meeting on (Dec. 15) and Coach (Helton) was there and talked to us,” Slovis told reporters. “There were a bunch of rumors and speculation, but we don’t focus on that, we just focus on what’s going on in our building. And Coach (Helton) was there, so we kind of assumed that he was going to be there for the long haul.”

Friday marks the third Holiday Bowl appearance for USC, the previous two played in 2014 and 2015. The 2015 edition came just weeks after the interim tag was removed for Helton, who replaced Steve Sarkisian midway through the campaign.

In that Holiday Bowl, USC gave up three sacks to Wisconsin’s Jack Cichy on one drive in 23-21 loss. A repeat is unlikely, but a similar matchup problem could shape Friday’s game. Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa comes in with nine sacks and three forced fumbles on the season.

USC counters with Austin Jackson, its All-Pac-12 Conference offensive tackle.

–Field Level Media

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