Outback Bowl Preview: Iowa vs. LSU

Iowa has enjoyed a season of redemption. And it has been sweet for a program that was scrutinized and criticized coming off a 4-8 season in 2012. Had Kirk Ferentz lost it? Laughable.

The Hawkeyes enjoyed a reversal of fortune, going 8-4 behind a strong defense and the emergence of quarterback Jake Rudock, allowing Iowa to avoid missing the postseason in consecutive seasons for the first time since a three-year absence from 1998-2000. Not bad for a team picked by most to finish fifth in the Legends Division.

And Iowa is hot, arriving in Tampa having won four of its last five games, including the last three, to punch its ticket to the Outback Bowl. This is a confident squad coming off its biggest triumph of the year in taking a 38-17 win at Nebraska.

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Outback Bowl, Jan. 1, 1 pm ET

Iowa (8-4) vs. LSU (9-3)

Storyline: This is a rematch of the Capital One Bowl after the 2004 season. And, that’s a game Hawkeye fans never will forget. Iowa quarterback Drew Tate heaved a 56-yard touchdown pass to Warren Holloway on the final play of the game to stop the hearts of Hawkeyes fans and send Iowa to a 30-25 victory. Iowa may need more heroics to beat a very good LSU team. No doubt, a victory would be the signature win of the season for the Hawkeyes. And a victory also could land Iowa in some final Top 25 polls. LSU is a talented club that lost to Georgia, Ole Miss and Alabama but has wins over Texas A&M and Auburn. A triumph vs. Iowa would allow LSU to have a fourth consecutive 10-victory season, which would be a school record.

Player on the spot: Iowa QB Jake Rudock. When the season began, questions nagged the Hawkeye offense. The biggest? Who would the quarterback be? Rudock has been a revelation, displaying a steady hand as a methodical game manager. He knows how to take what a defense gives him. And he typically limits mistakes, breathing life into what was a moribund Hawkeye attack that in 2012 ranked 114th in the nation (310.4 ypg). By the way: Rudock should be fine after hurting his right knee in the finale, having to come out of the game at Nebraska.

Best individual matchup: Iowa CB B.J. Lowery vs. LSU WR Odell Beckham, Jr. It also will be fun when Lowery matchups with Jarvis Landry. This tandem of Tiger wideouts is among the best in school history. The other Iowa corner? It’s freshman Desmond King. Gulp. Iowa must limit big plays in the passing game so the Hawkeye defense can gang up to stop the run.

Best unit matchup: Iowa offensive line vs. LSU defensive line. Strength on strength. Iowa tackle Brandon Scherff recently announced he would return for his senior season, when he should be a top candidate for the Outland and Lombardi awards. This is a chance for him to show his stuff when/if he foes against LSU stalwarts Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson. If Scherff and his buddies can’t open holes in the run game, Iowa may be doomed.

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THREE REASONS TO BE OPTIMISTIC

1. The running game. Iowa has a strong one, led by a bevy of good backs that includes Mark Weisman, Damon Bullock and Jordan Canzeri. The Hawkeyes are No. 6 in the Big Ten in rushing (188.6 ypg). The Tigers permit 148.8 yards per game on the ground. Bottom line: Iowa should be able to establish the run, which would set up play-action passes. And that would make the Hawkeye offense very effective.

2. LBs. Iowa’s trio of Anthony Hitchens, James Morris and Christian Kirksey may be without peer. And the unit will go a long way in helping the Hawkeyes contain LSU running backs Jeremy Hill, a 1,185-yard rusher, and Terrence Magee. The sledding could be rough vs. an Iowa defense that’s No. 7 in the nation overall (303.2 ypg) and No. 17 vs. the run (120.8 ypg).

3. No Zach Mettenbeger. LSU will be without its stud starting quarterback, who was lost for the season after injuring a knee vs. Arkansas in the finale. Freshman Anthony Jennings will get the call. And he rallied LSU to victory vs. Arkansas by hitting the game-winning touchdown throw in the waning minutes. Still, he is no Mettenberger. And Iowa’s defense is much better than Arkansas’.

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THREE REASONS TO BE WORRIED

1. LSU wideouts. The Hawkeyes will face their biggest challenge yet in dealing with stud Bayou Bengal wideouts Odell Beckham, Jr., who has 57 catches for 1,117 yards and eight touchdowns, and Jarvis Landry, who has 75 grabs for 1,172 yards and 10 scores. If the Tigers are hitting passes down field, it will open running lanes for their strong backs. And the Hawkeyes will be in trouble.

2. Jeremy Hill. The LSU running back is among the best in the SEC. He’s quick and physical, capable of turning any play into a big play. The Iowa linebackers must contain him. And guys up front like massive tackle Carl Davis need to be gap sound.

3. Les Miles. Laugh if you want at some of his antics, but he’s a wily coach who may have something up his sleeve. In fact, he could turn this game around with a funky trick play and/or gimmick. The Hawkeyes need to be wary of the “Mad Hatter.” LSU has nothing to lose. Why not have some fun? Exactly.

My pick: LSU 24, Iowa 21

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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2 Comments

Your Opinion?
Show Comments (2 Comments)
Mike Ruckman on 12/14/2013 @ 1:31pm EST Said:

Tom, I don’t have a question but a comment. I think that rather Anthony Jennings being a weakness for LSU he will actually be a positive. Zach Mettenberger has a tendency to force throws to OBj and Landry come hell or high water. He rarely checks down or goes to other options. I think AJ will be the exact opposite and also his escapability is a BIG plus! Zach is a statue in the pocket. Also AJ has the arm strength an accuracy of Zach. What he doesn’t have is the experience.
We have some payback coming! Hope the Tigers are up for the game. Should be a good one and I’m looking forward to it.
Geaux Tigers!
Mike “The Tiger” Ruckman
Moore/Norman/Okc

Matt Baker on 12/29/2013 @ 6:16pm EST Said:

A reason to be optimistic that you missed or maybe overlooked; When in bowl games Kirk Ferentz is a wizard, racking up some of the big10’s only bowl wins in previous bowl seasons. You can’t over look Captain Kirks ability to get his teams bowl ready. Then again, the Hawkeyes enjoy being the underdog, so thanks. Go Hawks!