By Pat Harty
SAN DIEGO – Hayden Fry had to be looking down and smiling as the Iowa football team had its way against USC in the Holiday Bowl on Friday.
Iowa’s former legendary head coach, who passed away on Dec. 17th at the age of 90, enjoyed some of his greatest moments as a Hawkeye in this bowl.
His teams won back-to-back Holiday Bowls in 1986 and 1987, and did so in gut-wrenching fashion with last-second victories in both games.
Kirk Ferentz was the Iowa offensive line coach for both of those wins, so you knew he would have his team ready to play in Fry’s honor on Friday.
And it was apparent from the very start that Iowa was ready as it rolled to a 49-24 victory in a game in which it never trailed.
Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, who is the oldest of Kirk Ferentz’s five children, had a masterful performance as his play calling kept the Trojan defense off balance throughout with a mix of receiver reverses and downfield pass plays.
Kirk Ferentz seemed a little miffed when asked on Thursday if USC would be the fastest team that Iowa has played this season. He said the stereotype that the Big Ten doesn’t have enough speed to keep pace with teams from the West Coast was blown way out of proportion.
It seemed obvious that Ferentz was tired of talking about the matchup and just wanted to play the game.
And now know we know why.
Ferentz is never one to boast about his team’s potential, or its chance of winning a game, but he had a quiet confidence to him on Thursday.
He acted like a coach who knew that his team was ready to compete at a high level because there was a lot on the line in Friday’s game, including the chance to win 10 games for the ninth time in program history, and for the sixth time under Kirk Ferentz.
Ferentz knew that the best way to pay tribute to the man who launched his coaching career nearly 40 years ago was to win what Fry called his favorite bowl game.
Iowa was leading 35-24 when USC backup quarterback Matt Fink had the snap sail over his head deep in his own territory with 13 minutes, 46 seconds left to play.
Iowa linebacker Kristian Welch recovered the fumble to give Iowa a first down at the USC 6-yard line
Senior quarterback Nate Stanley then scrambled out of the pocket and completed a 6-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Smith with 12:52 left to play.
All-America kicker Keith Duncan made the point-after kick that gave Iowa a 42-24 lead.
And while there still was nearly a full quarter left to play, it just didn’t feel like USC had a chance at that point, especially with a backup quarterback running the offense.
Stanley, on the other hand, made his 39th consecutive start on Friday and finished 3-0 in bowl games. He and Ricky Stanzi are the only Iowa quarterback to finish 3-0 in bowl games.
USC had narrowed the deficit to 28-24 in the third quarter, but then Iowa answered with a 90-yard scoring drive on 14 plays, capped by Tyler Goodson’s 1-yard plunge into the end zone.
Every time USC landed a punch, Iowa answered with a counter punch to quell the momentum.
Friday’s victory was a team win in every sense of the word, and that was the best way to have honored Hayden Fry.
The first half was one of the most enjoyable 30 minutes of Iowa football that I could remember for quite some time.
Iowa clearly looked like the better team, from coaching to execution to preparation. Even the speed factor worked to Iowa’s advantage as USC had no answer for Smith-Marsette’s speed and quickness.
His 98-yard kick return in the second quarter was a thing of beauty as Smith-Marsette used a block by Devonte Young to break loose in open field.
And once Smith-Marsette was in open field, it was over. He blew by several USC defenders and would go on to make history as the only Hawkeye to return two kicks for a touchdown in the same season.
Smith-Marsette also made good on a promise from media day in August when he predicted that he wouldn’t just take one kick to the house this season, but two.
The New Jersey native also returned a kick for a touchdown in the final regular-season game against Nebraska.
Stanley was close to perfect in the first half, completing 11-of-12 passes for 130 yards and one touchdown.
Iowa also had 79 rushing yards in the first half, including a 23-yard touchdown on a reverse by Tyrone Tracy on the opening drive of the game.
Smith-Marsette also scored on a 6-yard run the second quarter as the USC defense looked totally unprepared for the reverse plays.
However, the momentum quickly shifted in the third quarter as USC scored on the opening drive on a 3-yard run by Stephen Carr.
The key play on the drive was a 55-yard pass from Slovis to Amon-Ra St. Brown that gave the Trojans a first down at the Iowa 3.
The momentum continued to shift in USC’s favor as it recovered an onside kick near midfield on the ensuing kick.
But then Slovis was hurt on the second play of the possession and replaced by Matt Fink with 12:50 left in the third quarter.
Fink was then sacked on third down by linebacker Nick Niemann for an 8-yard loss, forcing the Trojans to punt.
Iowa avoided disaster on the punt as returner Max Cooper recovered his own muffed punt at the Iowa 10.
Friday's victory came almost 17 years after USC had defeated Iowa 38-17 in the 2003 Orange Bowl.
There was talk that revenge would be part of Iowa's motivation, but this game was more about honoring a legend.
And in that case, mission completed.
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USC 7 10 7
Iowa 7 21 7
I – Tyrone Tracy 23 run (Keith Duncan kick)
SC – Drake London 4 pass (Chase McGrath kick)
I – Ihmir Smith-Marsette 6 run (Duncan kick)
SC – Vavae Malepeai 16 pass from Kedon Slovis (McGrath kick)
I – Smith-Marsette 98 kick return (Duncan kick)
I – Smith-Marsette 12 pass from Nate Stanley (Duncan kick)
SC – Stephen Carr 3 run (McGrath kick)
I – Tyler Goodson 1 run (Duncan kick)
I – Brandon Smith 6 pass from Stanley (Duncan kick)