TAMPA, Fla. – Mississippi State’s talent-rich defense has earned its accolades.
Iowa’s opponent in Tuesday’s Outback Bowl is the only team in college football to be ranked in the top 10 in the country in scoring defense, rushing defense, passing defense and total defense.
Nothing comes easily for opponents of the Bulldogs.
The Hawkeyes, with a defense that ranks seventh in the country in defending the run and in total defense, enter the 11 a.m. New Year’s Day match-up believing they have something to prove.
“They have a great defense, no question. The only thing we can do is be the best defense on the field on New Year’s Day and that’s what we’re working to do,’’ Iowa cornerback Matt Hankins said. “It’s a chance for us to show that we can compete on even terms with a defense people say is one of the best in the country.’’
That’s motivation for Iowa, which spent Friday morning practicing on the grass turf at a soccer stadium at the University of Tampa.
“Let’s get a good sweat going today,’’ defensive coordinator Phil Parker said, encouraging his players as they worked through drills that preceded a workout that lasted a little longer than the expected 90 minutes.
Afterward, the Hawkeyes didn’t mind.
“We’re getting ready to play a good team with a lot of talent on offense,’’ defensive end Parker Hesse said. “It’s a good way to end the season, facing a good challenge and that’s what these guys are. They’re a good team.’’
Iowa’s work begins in dealing with an offensive line anchored by a senior center in Elgton Jenkins who is ranked by NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. as the top prospect at his position in this year’s draft class.
He works in front of a third-year starting quarterback in Nick Fitzgerald who is at the core of what the Bulldogs try to get done on offense.
The 6-foot-5, 230-pound senior is bigger than most dual-threat quarterbacks Iowa has competed against this season and is Mississippi State’s primary ball carrier.
He’s topped 100 rushing yards 20 times in his collegiate career and on his way to 1,018 rushing yards this season, Fitzgerald carried the ball 201 times and has thrown it 249 times while leading the Bulldogs to an 8-4 record.
In watching Fitzgerald work on tape, Iowa defensive back Jake Gervase sees a difference between the run-pass threat the Hawkeyes faced earlier this season in Penn State’s Trace McSorley and in Nebraska’s Adrian Martinez.
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“He’s kind of a power guy and he uses his size in a way that’s a little different for a running quarterback,’’ Gervase said. “If it’s fourth-and-one or third-and-two, he doesn’t hand it off a lot. He’ll keep and he doesn’t hesitate to run for the tough yards. We have to respect that and if we get a chance to get a hit in on him, we have to do that, too.’’
Linebacker Djimon Colbert said Fitzgerald doesn’t mind dropping his shoulder and aggressively attacking opposing defenses.
“He doesn’t slide much, and we take that into consideration with the game plan,’’ Colbert said.
He said Iowa can’t become too consumed with what Fitzgerald brings to the table.
Running back Kylin Hill has averaged 6.6 yards on his 101 carries this season and is among eight Bulldogs who have caught at least 10 passes this season.
“Their quarterback slept on a lot of people, but he can make plays on his feet. Everyone knows he can run around,’’ Colbert said. “They have good backs, too, so we have to prepare for all the things they bring on game day.’’
Hill said Iowa’s length on defense, from the size that Anthony Nelson and Matt Nelson bring up front, to long arms in the secondary, is something the Bulldogs have not seen this season.
“That’s different. They’re long, and they’re physical,’’ he said, comparing the Hawkeyes’ level of physical play on defense to what Mississippi State dealt with when during a 24-0 loss to Alabama.
“They’re a good defense and we know they’ll be ready for us. It’s a Big Ten-SEC game. They’ll be ready.’’
The way Hill and others are utilized in an offense that averages 29.1 points adds to the challenge Iowa will face.
Parker said the Bulldogs’ offensive scheme and the way it distributes the ball to players across the field is well conceived.
“You have to be careful of cheating too many guys in the box,’’ Parker said. “When you do that, you’re going to give up big plays. The fewer big plays you give up the better defense you’re going to play.’’
That starts with stopping the run, defensive back Amani Hooker said.
“It’s better to give up only a handful of yards on the ground on a play than it is to give up big yards on a pass play,’’ Hooker said. “As always, what we want to do starts with defending the run game and doing what we can to make them a one-dimensional team. That’s what we try to do every time out.’’
Hooker said Iowa’s objective isn’t to be the type of defense Mississippi State has been all season.
“Our goal is to be the best defense on the field on New Year’s Day,’’ Hooker said. “If we can be that defense, eliminate any mistakes, we’ll give ourselves a chance in this game. That’s what we’re all working to do.’’