By Pat Harty
SAN DIEGO – When considering Iowa’s chances of defeating the University of Southern California in the Holiday Bowl on Friday, you have to start with one question that has nothing to do with Iowa.
Which USC team will show up?
The one that defeated Utah 30-23, Stanford 45-20, Arizona 41-14 and California 41-17, or the one that lost to Oregon 52-24 at home?
Now granted, Oregon is a top-10 team and the best team in the Pacific-12 Conference.
But this was a case of USC not even being competitive, and that throws up a red flag, along with USC's four losses, which by its lofty standards, is a lot.
It doesn’t take a football genius to realize that this isn’t one of USC’s powerhouse teams. The four losses should tell you that, along with only three USC players having earned first-team all-conference accolades.
But this USC team still is capable of defeating Iowa, and its pass-happy offense could pose the biggest challenge all season for the vaunted Iowa defense.
Michael Pittman is an NFL receiver waiting to happen and arguably the top receiver in the collegiate ranks. He finished the regular season with 1,222 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns.
There was some talk that Pittman might skip the Holiday Bowl to prepare for the 2020 NFL Draft, but he will play on Friday.
He is one of three USC receivers who have caught at least 60 passes this season.
True freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis, who was coached by NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner in high school, also has passed for 3,242 yards and 28 touchdowns, while only throwing nine interceptions.
“Yeah, these guys get a million balls and they know how to get open and they know how to catch it and they know how to run afterwards and that's going to be a starting point,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said at Thursday's press conference. “But hard to find any position on the roster where they don't have guys that are very active and very talented and very dangerous.”
Slovis and his receivers need time and space to execute, though, and that’s where USC might be in trouble against Iowa’s relentless pass rush led by junior All-America defensive end A.J. Epenesa.
“It's one of the best defensive fronts we've faced all year, and I think they do a great job on first and second down efficiency,” said USC coach Clay Helton. “They are so well-coached. You don't see them missing assignments or getting out of gaps and if they get you in third-and-long, they are elite.
“I truly believe their pass rush on third down allows them to play advantage coverages because they can — they can rush four and get to you, and that's always a deterrent for offenses. You have to stay in that third-and-manageable against them, and that's how they are, that bend-but-don't-break, because they get off the field. You look at that third down percentage efficiency, it's one of the top 20 in the country, and as well as their defense, and it's the reason that they are only giving up 13 points a game.”
Iowa’s defense is one of the reasons I give the Hawkeyes the slightest edge in Friday’s game, along with the uncertainty surrounding USC’s focus and enthusiasm for playing in the Holiday Bowl.
Iowa senior quarterback Nate Stanley will also be making his 39th consecutive start, and is 2-0 in bowl games, while Slovis is just a freshman and will be playing in his first bowl game.
USC is also vulnerable against the run, allowing 166 yards per game, and it will be in serious trouble if Iowa has success on the ground.
Iowa is almost impossible to defeat when it rushes for over 150 yards in a game. But Iowa is almost certain to lose when it rushes for fewer than 100 yards in a game.
And while you can say that about most teams, Iowa takes it to the extreme.
If the offense can achieve balance and Stanley has time to throw, USC had better answer with at least four touchdowns because that’s probably how many it’ll take to defeat an Iowa team that is balanced on offense.
But it’s hard to envision Epenesa and his defensive cohorts giving up at least four touchdowns, even against an offense of USC’s ilk.
And if the game comes down to a last-second field goal, you'd have to like Iowa's chances with All-America kicker Keith Duncan performing at an elite level.
It comes back to the same question; which USC team will show up?
And will Trojan fans embrace this matchup just two days after Christmas?
If USC comes out flat and uninspired, Iowa will trample all over them because this Iowa team is trying to become just the ninth team in program history to win at least 10 games in a season, and because the Iowa players and coaches respect the Holiday Bowl and its rich tradition, which Iowa is a big part of it, with two gut-wrenching victories in 1986 and 1987.
And then, of course, there is the Hayden Fry factor to consider.
A lot of the Iowa players weren’t even alive when Fry retired as the Iowa head coach in 1998, so it’s hard to know how they will respond from an emotional standpoint.
But you can guarantee that Kirk Ferentz will be inspired by Fry’s memory, and that Ferentz will be at his best during Friday's game.
Every bowl game means a great deal to Ferentz, but this particular Holiday Bowl is now even more special with Fry having recently passed away at the age of 90.
Iowa has played in three Holiday Bowls in 1986, 1987 and 1991, and Fry was the head coach in all three games, while Ferentz was the Iowa offensive line coach in the first two Holiday Bowl appearances.
So there is a history with Hayden Fry and the Holiday Bowl and Ferentz will certainly use that history to motivate his players.
Ferentz was asked at Thursday’s press conference if he had been hearing coach Fry’s voice in his head during practice for the Holiday Bowl.
“You know, the biggest thing is I think his impact just overriding with our program is so significant, and same thing with the Big Ten,” Ferentz said of Fry. “He changed Big Ten history in my opinion, and obviously, changed Iowa football history forever. You know, his impact, and then on top his vision, whether it's the Tiger Hawk, ANF sticker. All those things that he was able to think about and see, that other people probably just didn't have that ability. Yeah, he's a huge reason why I'm here obviously. Every day, you think about that."
Iowa failed to win the Big Ten title, but a chance to win 10 games, to honor a legend and to defeat one of the true powers in college football in beautiful San Diego still would be a pretty good ending to the season.
Much has been said about USC having an advantage in speed and quickness over Iowa, but Ferentz tried to downplay that stereotype on Thursday. He actually seemed a little annoyed by the question, which by the way, I had asked.
"I mean, you know, the myth about the Big Ten I think gets a little blown out of proportion," Ferentz said. "We play some guys that have got some — you line up against Michigan, they have some guys that can move around pretty good and disrupt you at every position, and I think probably a similar comparison there."
As for Clay Helton, it’s hard to know what motivational buttons he will push.
USC fans expect to compete for conference championships, and for national championships in football. But playing the in the Holiday Bowl with four losses, and against a three-loss Iowa team, is a long way from being elite.
Rumors have persisted throughout the season about Helton’s job status. He was recently given a vote of confidence by the USC administration, but that could change with a loss in the Holiday Bowl.
Helton was asked on Thursday if he considers the Holiday Bowl like a fresh start or a clean slate.
“For me it's the next game and the next opportunity,” Helton said. “It's kind of like Coach Ferentz said, to be with your team for an extra month and to be able to play a top-25 opponent, No. 16 in the country like Iowa, it just helps us for the next step.
“You know, we are going to look at this game and the focus and the preparation that we put into it. It's going to be very similar next year. You look at our schedule next year, there's probably six Top-25 opponents that are going to be on that schedule. So what a great opportunity and a great experience for our kids to be down here in San Diego competing against a team like the University of Iowa.”
This will mark the 10th time that Iowa and USC have faced each other and the Trojans have a 7-2 advantage in the series.
The teams last met in the 2003 Orange Bowl when USC broke open a close game in the second half and then rolled to a 38-17 victory.
There is talk that Iowa might use that game as a revenge factor, but that’s a reach because the game was played almost 17 years ago.
Iowa has enough incentive to play well without having to use the revenge factor.
“The bottom line is we're going out there to play a game against a really outstanding opponent,” Ferentz said. “You don't have to say much, if you think about USC, the tradition of that program, the success they've had, the great individual players, the coaches that have gone through there. It's a who's who.”
And while Ferentz is right about USC’s storied tradition, it’ll take a lot more than that to prevail on Friday, and that’s why I like Iowa to win.
Prediction: Iowa 27, USC 24