IOWA CITY, Iowa — The Iowa bowl mystery is over. The Hawkeyes are heading to the Outback Bowl and will face Florida.
How the Hawkeyes must beat the Gators isn’t a surprise. If they’re to win the game, it will be because of their defense.
Iowa is a defense-first team. If we’re being honest, it’s defense second, too, probably special teams third … and defense fourth.
First downs, let alone touchdowns, were a problem for the offense for most of the season. Five times in Big Ten play Iowa failed to score more than two touchdowns in a game.
The recipe for victory is leaning on the defense while the offense grinds out enough points. It worked time and again. The Hawkeyes won eight games and reside in the Top 25 in both polls (though not in the College Football Playoff rankings).
The offense exploded for 40 points against Nebraska on Nov. 25, but the track record says the regular-season finale is the outlier. The Hawkeyes won one game when allowing allowing 23 points or more. If they get stops, they’ll have a shot at their first bowl win since 2010.
|North Dakota State||23-21 L|
|Penn State||41-14 L|
Iowa can’t expect to get a bowl victory if it ends up in a shootout. The defense needs to show up. If it doesn’t, Iowa likely won’t win. It’s been that way all season.
The good news for Iowa is this projects to a low-scoring game. The Hawkeyes (8-4) and Gators (8-4) are nearly mirror images of each other. They win with their defense and scrape together just enough points to win.
Not much went according to plan for Iowa this season — the offensive line injuries, the passing attack without wide out Matt VandeBerg and the North Dakota State loss — but the defense morphed into the shutdown unit preseason prognosticators expected.
It did take time. The 239 rushing yards to North Dakota State and 38 points to Northwestern will not be making the postseason highlight reel. Once the rush issues were fixed, the defense became more than a team strength. It turned into one of the best defenses in the league.
Iowa averaged allowing only 17.9 points per game. Opponents convert 34.8 percent of third downs. The Hawkeyes do the two things required of a defense. They keep teams from scoring and get off the field on third down.
The defense peaked at the end of the season. It created the blueprint — strong defensive line play required — of how to slow down the potent Michigan offense. It shutout Illinois and didn’t allow an opponent to rush for 100 yards in the final three games.
Big Ten teams couldn’t beat Iowa when forced to be one-dimensional. Florida won’t either.
As Iowa’s defense goes, so will the team’s bowl chances.