Outback Bowl: Defensive powers Iowa, Mississippi State meet

Mississippi State defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons (94) opted to play in the Outback Bowl rather than sit out to prepare for the NFL Draft.Photo: Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

By Doug Bean, The Sports Xchange

Two hard-nosed, defensive-minded teams will collide in the Outback Bowl on New Year's Day at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., in a Big Ten-SEC matchup between No. 18 Mississippi State and Iowa.

If the defenses play as they did during the regular season, the team that reaches 20 points might just win the game.

Mississippi State (8-4) ranks No. 1 nationally in scoring defense and No. 3 in total defense.

And the good news for the Bulldogs is that their defense will remain intact for the Outback. Three potential first-round picks in the 2019 NFL Draft -- defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons, defensive end Montez Sweat and safety Johnathan Abram -- opted to play rather than skip the game to prepare for their pro careers.

Simmons, a potential top-10 pick, never thought twice about skipping out on his teammates.

"We're ready to take the field one more time," he said. "Just being able to take the field one more time is going to be the best feeling ever, especially with some of those guys who I know are fixing to go off and pursue their dream."

Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald wasn't surprised to see his teammates on the other side of the ball stick around for one last college game.

"I like to think that we're a really close-knit kind of brotherhood around here," Fitzgerald said. "I don't think anyone would want to be like, 'Hey, good luck. We're out,' kind of thing."

Fitzgerald, the SEC's career leader in rushing yards by a quarterback, will be tasked with trying to move the ball against Iowa's stingy defense. The Hawkeyes rank No. 2 in the Big Ten and No. 6 nationally in rushing defense, and the Bulldogs have the SEC's No. 2 rushing offense.

Iowa (8-4) also is No. 7 in the country in total defense and No. 11 in scoring defense.

Mississippi State's run-oriented offense should be bolstered by the presence of running back Kylin Hill, who missed two games with a lower-body injury. He rushed for 691 yards and averaged 6.6 yards per carry this season when healthy.

"To get him healthy for the bowl game, I'm excited for him and for us," Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead said.

In other words, it's strength vs. strength as Mississippi State's offensive line tries to whip Iowa's defensive front.

"More than anything, it's going to be a physical game," Moorhead said. "You have to be great with fundamentals and technique."

Not many teams moved the ball with success this season against Mississippi State's defense. Iowa's No. 77-ranked offense was plagued by inconsistency and could run into trouble.

"They have some really talented guys," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of Mississippi State's defense. "They play well collectively. You look at their stats and it's been steady. Not many teams have run the ball well on them. They do a good job of taking that away and they get you in third-and-longs.

"Their third-down defense and offense percentages are both pretty healthy and they're good in the red zone on both sides."

Iowa tight end Noah Fant, a projected first-round NFL Draft pick, decided to forgo the bowl, but the Hawkeyes still have Mackey Award-winning tight end T.J. Hockenson, one of their primary weapons, who is considering whether to enter the draft or return for his redshirt junior season in 2019.

Quarterback Nate Stanley has had his moments, including a six-touchdown game, but he doesn't have many reliable targets other than Hockenson and wide receiver Nick Easley.

Iowa likes to run the ball (junior college transfer Mekhi Sargent emerged as the leading ball carrier during the final two games of the year) and use two tight-end formations. Even with Fant gone, the Hawkeyes plan to stick with that plan of attack.

"We'll change our personnel groups a little bit, certainly," Ferentz said. "The percentages will change, but we will still have two tight ends on the field, that won't come out of our playbook, but it might alter our percentages a little bit."

Mississippi State is making its first Outback Bowl appearance and Iowa its sixth in Ferentz's 19 years. The Hawkeyes have lost their last two visits, including a 30-3 blowout defeat against Florida on Jan. 1, 2017.

"The thing that stands out to me, two years ago, was we had a couple critical plays that we couldn't make," Ferentz said. "I think if we make those it was a whole different game. I think the score is totally unrepresentative of the game, but we didn't make the critical plays and Florida did, so we lose."

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