Hawkeye Fan Shop — A Black & Gold Store | 24 Hawkeyes to Watch 2016-17 | KinnickEdge.org | Hawk Talk Monthly — Dec. 2016 | Outback Bowl Tickets | Outback Bowl Central | Outback Bowl Merchandise | Outback Bowl Tours | 2017 Outback Bowl Media Guide | VIDEO — Iowa’s Outback Bowl History | Practice Photo Gallery | Hospital Visit Photo Gallery | VIDEO – Iowa Visits Tampa General Hospital
By JAMES ALLAN
TAMPA, Fla. — C.J. Beathard says No. 20 Florida’s defense could be the best he has ever faced, while University of Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis says the Gators’ secondary is as good as advertised.
That means the University of Iowa offense will face a unique challenge in the Jan. 2 Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium.
“This is an opportunity to go out and prove what we can do,” said Beathard, who is 21-6 as Iowa’s starting quarterback. “We’ve (faced teams with strong defenses) like Michigan and Wisconsin; there is nothing we haven’t seen.
“Florida is a good team, possibly the best defense I have every played against and they have two of the best corner backs in the country. It is a great opportunity and challenge.”
With roster featuring a plethora of NFL prospects, Florida has been one of the nation’s top defenses. The Gators are sixth in the country in total defense, allowing 298.6 yards per game and are ninth in scoring defense (17.9).
With defensive backs Quincy Wilson and Teez Tabor on the outside along with safeties Nick Washington and Marcell Harris, Florida’s passing defense allows just 156.3 yards per game. The Gators’ defense has forced 21 turnovers (13 interceptions, eight fumbles) in 13 games.
It will make for an interesting challenge for an Iowa offense that ranks 120th nationally and averages 161.3 yards through the air.
“We have to be smart, try to use matchups, and play to our advantage,” said Davis following Iowa’s Thursday practice at the University of Tampa — its first in full pads. “At some point, we’re going to have to win some one-on-one battles.”
With Florida’s talent on the outside, Beathard expects the Gators to put their defensive backs on islands to key in on the Hawkeyes’ rushing attack.
“They have two guys that are possible first-round draft picks and we know that,” said Beathard. “They can probably man the outside and load the box up front. We know it’s going to take our best shot, but we have a great game plan going into the game. We have a lot of respect for their team, we just have to go out and play well.”
Davis says Iowa’s offense did a good job of adjusting to the unit’s strengths as the season unfolded. Early in the year, the Hawkeyes were clicking, scoring 45 and 42 points in the first two games of the season. Then injuries hit, forcing the team to adjust.
“In September, we were functioning early well and everyone was excited,” said Davis. “As the season went on, we couldn’t do those things. We chose to do the things that gave us the best chance to win. That was to get bigger as our tight ends got healthy, run the ball, and use play action.
“The whole point of calling plays, whatever style you’re in, you’re just trying to win.”
The Hawkeyes rode running backs LeShun Daniels, Jr., and Akrum Wadley, and rightfully so. Daniels finished the regular season with 1,013 yards; Wadley has 966 yards. The duo is the second in program history to have 900-plus rushing yards in the same season; Iowa has never had two 1,000-yard rushers.
During Iowa’s three game winning streak over Michigan, Illinois, and Nebraska to close out the season, the Hawkeyes’ rushing attack averaged 230 yards. It’s a recipe that needs to continue in the Outback Bowl against Florida’s 35th-ranked rushing defense.
In eight wins, Florida’s defense allowed 102.8 yards per game. In four losses, the Gators allowed 221.5 yards, including 249 and 234 in back-to-back losses to Florida State and Alabama in the final two games.
The 2017 Outback Bowl will begin at noon (CT) on Jan. 2. The game will be televised on ABC with Mike Patrick, Ed Cunningham, and Dr. Jerry Punch on the call.