The USC vs. Iowa final score was an ugly one for those in cardinal and gold as the Hawkeyes strangled the Trojan defense in a 42-24 win.
The lowdown: Iowa struck first. Talanoa Hufanga nearly delivered an impact play early, but his strip was recovered by the offense and the Hawkeyes responded with an explosion of big plays, including a 30-yard strike over the middle and a 23-yard reverse touchdown to take an early 7-0madvantage.
USC’s opening drive followed a similar pattern. Kedon Slovis was fortunate not to toss an interception, but he came back with a long shot to Amon-Ra St. Brown before slicing through the zone to find Drake London for a touchdown, 7-7.
Iowa stuck to their guns and produced a lengthy 15-play, eight-minute drive finished with a six-yard touchdown run from Ihmir Smith-Marsette around the corner, 14-7.
Again the Trojan offense was asked to answer and they did. Slovis hit Vavae Malepeai on a wheel route for a 16-yard score, 14-14.
The Hawkeye offense didn’t have another chance to burn clock, though it wasn’t a problem for Kirk Ferentz’ men. Smith-Marsette took the ensuing kickoff and returned it for a quick score, 21-14.
Momentum going in Iowa’s favor, things only got worse for USC. A Slovis fumble was overturned on review, but punter Ben Griffiths still gave the Hawkeyes a short field with a 27-yard punt to midfield. Smith-Marsette made it a trio of touchdowns when his catch-and-run found the endzone to put Iowa up 28-14.
The Trojans took advantage of both sides of half time to keep it close. A big gain to St. Brown set up a field goal just before the break while another 57-yard shot to St. Brown put Stephen Carr in position to score a touchdown of his own, making it 28-24.
Then, USC surprised everyone, especially Iowa’s kick return team, when kicker Michael Brown executed a perfect onside kick, recovering it himself to put USC’s offense back on the field. The Trojans couldn’t make Iowa pay though as Slovis’s arm was caught from behind, forcing a fumble. While Austin Jackson jumped on the ball to prevent a turnover, the quarterback came out of the game injured and was replaced by Matt Fink. The drive faltered from there.
Iowa’s offense returned to the field and proved their first half performance against USC’s defense was no fluke. They marched 90 yards in 14-plays with Tyler Goodson scoring to put the Hawkeyes up 35-24.
When Michael Pittman lost a fumble while fighting for extra yards, USC’s hopes looked dashed.
The Trojan defense finally came up with their first stop of the game when Chris Steele broke up a long shot and Iowa failed to convert a third down because of a drop.
It didn’t matter in the end. With Slovis injured, USC’s offense struggled to create anything. Even as the defense came up with another stop, the offense couldn’t take advantage.
On a third-and-short, center Brett Neilon snapped the ball high. It popped off the quarterback’s hands and Fink was unable to recover. With the ball already inside the 10-yard line, Stanley scrambled on third down and found Brandon Smith for a touchdown, 42-24.
Injuries to defensive lineman Jay Tufele and cornerback Isaac Taylor-Stuart in the fourth quarter further spoiled a cringe-worthy night. The moldy cherry on top was a pick six by Nick Niemann in the final two minutes, locking in a 49-24 scoreline.
The takeaway: It was arguably the most embarrassing defensive performance for USC in decades. Not just because Iowa methodically drove against USC time and time again, finding the endzone with relative ease. It was because the Hawkeye gameplan was clearly so simple. All of the Trojans’ weaknesses were on display in the tape from the regular season and Iowa simply set out to exploit them. They used misdirection in the passing game and exploited the perimeter on the ground, wearing the Trojans down until they could pound it up the middle late. The fact that USC had no answers, despite two weeks of bowl prep available to them, is inexcusable.
The same goes for special teams, which gave up a devastating kick return touchdown despite kick return coverage being an identified issue to fix. There was no fix, only hair-pulling ineptitude.
But, in the end, it likely holds little meaning. With staff changes expected after bowl season, defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s job security was already minimal. Friday’s performance simply left no doubt about the necessity of finding a new DC.
Special teams coordinator John Baxter was likely to meet a similar fate. The showing against Iowa should only confirm that.
As for the offense, Slovis was excellent against a Top 5 Iowa defense, giving USC further hope for what the offense could become in Year 2. Unfortunately, his absence also spelled the ultimate doom for the Trojans.
Now Clay Helton will face even more questions going into a long offseason. So will Mike Bohn, the athletic director who opted to keep Helton in place. This cannot have been the ending to the season either of them hoped. It certainly wasn’t what USC fans wanted or expected.
Player of the game: Ihmir Smith-Marsette led all players with 203 yards of total offense and three touchdowns. He had two catches for 46 yards and a score, two carries for 15 yards and a score, and three kick returns for 142 yards including a 98-yard touchdown. He was the first college football player to score via receiving, rushing and kickoff return in a bowl game since Ole Miss running back Deuce McAllister in 1998.
Stat of the game: Iowa scored five touchdowns on their first five possessions of the game, including three drives of 10 or more plays.
Next on tap: The 2019 season is officially over. USC will regroup for the February Signing Day, Spring practice and Fall Camp before facing off with Alabama to open the 2020 season.