USC hadn’t played Iowa since the end of the 2002 season, but Friday night’s Holiday Bowl still featured a familiar scene for Trojan fans. In a season highlighted by special teams miscues, turnovers, an inability to stop perimeter runs, and quarterback injuries, USC lost the Holiday Bowl to Iowa 49-24, highlighted by…special teams miscues, turnovers, an inability to stop perimeter runs, and a quarterback injury.
While there were plenty of ups and downs this season, the first half of the year turned out to be fairly prophetic in terms of how the season ended. Against Fresno State, the Trojans began the game with a special teams penalty, lost quarterback JT Daniels for the season at the end of the first half, turned the ball over four times and allowed 206 yards on the ground to the Bulldogs, largely on carries to the outside.
Those issues rose up again and again this year, and were front and center against Iowa.
Friday night in the Holiday Bowl, the tide turned on a kickoff return touchdown by Ihmir Smith-Marsette, followed by a 27-yard USC punt, and then the game effectively ended when Kedon Slovis was knocked out due to injury with 12:50 remaining in the third quarter. Iowa also scored twice on wide receiver runs to the edge and the Trojans lost the turnover battle 3-0.
“Very well-played game by Iowa tonight,” USC head coach Clay Helton said. “They played better than us, that was a simple fact. When we look at it, we’ll look back at this tape, it will be a first half story of them being really good on third down efficiency, us not really getting off the field. Then the second half, having some critical errors as far as turnovers in the red zone, and the special teams touchdown. That created separation.”
The Trojan offense threw a few punches at the Hawkeyes, as Amon-Ra St. Brown caught nine passes for 163 yards and USC was able to go score-for-score with Iowa to start the game, tying it at 14-14 with six minutes left in the first half. But Iowa grabbed momentum with its 98-yard kickoff return touchdown by Smith-Marsette. On the ensuing USC drive, a 27-yard punt gave Iowa the ball at the 48-yard line and the Hawkeyes drove for another score, eventually taking a 28-17 lead into halftime. Iowa had scored more than 28 points in a full game just three times this season. Eventually, the Hawkeyes scored touchdowns on their first five possessions of the game and didn’t punt until 1:28 remaining in the third quarter.
USC scored quickly in the third, thanks in large part to a 55-yard pass from Slovis to St. Brown, then looked like it could stay hot when kicker Michael Brown recovered his own onside kick. But Slovis was sacked by Iowa All-American defensive end A.J. Epenesa on the second play of the drive, forcing Slovis to the bench for the remainder of the game. USC fumbled twice and punted twice on the next four possessions.
“I’ll be honest with you, I thought we put ourselves right in that position after the on-side kick,” Helton said. “It was exciting. It was really neat to see our fans when Matty took the field, the support that was around him, around the guys. We just didn’t get it done. We’ve been in that situation with him before. He has absolutely excelled. Tonight just wasn’t our night.”
With the 25-point loss, USC fell to 8-5 this season, and is now 13-12 over the past two seasons. Asked about the expectations at USC, Helton brought up the ultimate goal.
“We believe in championships here,” Helton said. “The expectations are high and I love them. Our players love it. That’s why we all came to USC. We’re challenged by them. We will always be continued to be challenged by them. Just as a fan base might be frustrated, a coaching staff and players are frustrated because we know what we’re about.”
Helton spoke highly of the small group of seniors — USC is scheduled to lose just seven scholarship seniors from this team — and how next year’s team is set up for success because of them.
“We’re going to be a very good team next year because of these men and their leadership this year,” Helton said. “That was the thing that I take away [from this season]. A foundation was laid by a bunch of good seniors. We’ll make sure we have success in the future. Bright days are ahead.”
Helton didn’t address whether staff changes would be made going forward, only reiterating that he had been solely focused on preparing for this game and will now begin the process of a full-scale evaluation of the program.
“I’ve been tasked with looking at the program as a whole, making any changes if necessary that I feel,” Helton said. “Right now I’m going to go back and evaluate. Our players come back on January 13th, and I’m going to evaluate everything, not only personnel, staffing. I’ve been very thankful to Mike [Bohn]and Dr. Carol Folt that they’ve given me the resources, the tools, the support that is needed to take this from good to great. That’s my job. I’ll be looking at it. I’ll alert everybody if and when those happen.”
- USC quarterback Kedon Slovis broke the Pac-12 single-season completion percentage record, as he finished the year at 71.9%. That broke the record previously held by Stanford’s Andrew Luck, who completed 71.9% of his passes during the 2011 season. The 71.9% mark also establishes a new USC record, as Slovis passed Cody Kessler’s 2014 record of 69.7%.
- Helton was unsure as to the extent of Slovis’ injury following the game, only calling it an elbow injury. He said Slovis would get an MRI and hoped that it was just a sprain.
- Amon-Ra St. Brown went over the 1,000-yard mark for the season during this game. He joins Michael Pittman as 1,000-yard receivers for the Trojans this season.
- Talanoa Hufanga led the Trojans with 14 tackles in the game, giving him 28 tackles in his last two games. Hufanga had five games this year with at least 10 tackles.
- USC finished with 356 total yards against Iowa’s 328. And while the Hawkeyes weren’t dominant on the ground, they did hold a 115-22 advantage in rushing yards.
- The Trojans have now allowed 49 points in two of their past three bowl games. The previous high allowed was 42, in a Rose Bowl loss to Ohio State following the 1973 season.
- The 25-point margin of the defeat is the most lopsided bowl loss since a 49-0 Rose Bowl loss to Michigan following the 1947 season.