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Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley says he had to win the Outback Bowl through the air. He also describes his best throw of the game. Listen in: Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

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There’s not another Iowa football game until Aug. 31, against Miami of Ohio.

So even though it’s been nearly a week since the Hawkeyes defeated Mississippi State 27-22 in the Outback Bowl, it’s still fresh by comparison.

And, yes, there is a lot of hidden stuff to dissect from a victory against an 18th-ranked team that pushed Iowa’s final record to 9-4 — the second-best mark over the past eight seasons under Kirk Ferentz.

So, let’s do it. Let’s dive into a belated DVR Monday — our last until September — and find the stuff that went largely unreported in Tampa.

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Iowa receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette had a fumble that led to seven quick Mississippi State points, but also had a big touchdown catch. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

Under attack of a relentless defense, Nate Stanley's accuracy was precise.

Sideline reporter Molly McGrath confirmed during the ESPN2 broadcast that Stanley’s right (throwing) thumb was continuing to be bothersome, as the white tape around it indicated. Stanley suffered the injury way back on Oct. 27 at Penn State, so the fact that it was still an issue 10 weeks later indicates it may need offseason treatment.

But in this game, you never would've known Stanley was battling an injury. He was quietly terrific, probably making his best throw of the day on a 15-yard touchdown to Ihmir Smith-Marsette in the second quarter. The beautiful toss went to the sophomore receiver’s outside, hitting a window about as big as an iPad.

His command of the offense was especially notable, though, on a six-play scoring drive after Iowa took over at Mississippi State’s 32-yard line in the third quarter. Fresh off a Chauncey Golston interception, a struggling Iowa offense needed points. Stanley provided them. His next six plays:

  • A pump-fake deep, then a fastball to receiver Brandon Smith on the outside for a 12-yard gain in front of four Mississippi State defenders.
  • A throw-away under pressure in the pocket, in which he absorbed an initial hit, then slung the ball out of bounds while taking another. Instead of a 10-yard sack, he helped Iowa salvage second-and-10.
  • A pinpoint out-pattern pass to Smith-Marsette for a gain of seven, setting up third-and-3.
  • Another quick out pass to Nick Easley, on the money for 2 yards (although it looked like he got a poor spot, making it fourth-and-1).
  • Then, after his play-action pass target was shut down, Stanley (all 6-foot-4, 242 pounds of him) nimbly side-stepped a pass rush, then curled inside the nice block of Alaric Jackson for a rare scramble. He twisted ahead for a 3-yard gain, and a first-and-goal from the 8.
  • Finally, he zipped a pass to Easley on the outside. If you have the game recorded, watch this throw. It’s nondescript on first view, but the ball a) got out quickly; b) hits Easley exactly where you’d want it (chest-high) as a receiver; and c) hits him on the move, allowing Easley to turn upfield and lunge through two Bulldogs defenders inside the right pylon for what proved to be the game's winning points.

It’s worth re-mentioning that Mississippi State had given up five touchdown passes all season; Stanley had three in the Outback Bowl, bringing his total to 26 for a second consecutive year. Good thing for Iowa he's coming back for his senior campaign.

Although Easley was voted the game’s MVP, the award easily could’ve gone to Stanley (21-of-31, 214 yards) for how he led Iowa to what mattered most — points — on a day when yards were difficult to come by.

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Iowa senior Nick Easley caught eight passes for 104 yards and two touchdowns in the Hawkeyes' 27-22 win against Mississippi State. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

An early-game revelation ... and adjustment ... changed Iowa's approach.

On a day when Iowa gained a season-low 199 yards, it might seem bizarre to compliment the offensive coordinator. But upon review, it’s clear that Brian Ferentz made a critical adjustment early in this game that led the Hawkeyes to the hard-earned yards and points they needed.

Essentially, he stopped testing the middle of Mississippi State’s No. 1-ranked defense.

Iowa first drive of the game — two stuffed runs up the middle and a sack — showed just how imposing Mississippi State’s defensive line, led by Jeffery Simmons, would be. On its third drive, three more middle-of-the-field plays netted four Iowa yards. After that, Ferentz seemed to scrap the between-the-tackles stuff on his play sheet and take his chances on the edges.

For the game, Iowa ran 14 plays in the middle of the field (including three sacks and a kneel-down) for minus-10 yards. Its other 37 plays went for 209 (an acceptable 5.65-yard average).

After a 5-yard sack of Stanley in the third quarter, the Hawkeyes ran 18 straight plays to the outside — mostly throws, but a few runs. Mekhi Sargent’s 5-yard run on Iowa’s last real drive of the game broke the string.

Some great illustrations of Iowa’s outside reliance: Wide receivers caught 15 of Stanley’s 21 completions. All eight of Easley’s catches went to the outside; he’s often been a reliable slot target over the middle.

Tight end T.J. Hockenson, proficient at working the middle of the field, didn’t make a catch until the fourth quarter — when all three of his grabs (for 43 yards) were outside the hash marks.

And lastly: All three of Stanley’s touchdown passes resulted in scores just inside the right-side pylon of the south end zone of Raymond James Stadium.

Brian Ferentz wasn’t stubborn on this day. He was creative. And his offense, as a result, was victoriously opportunistic.

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The Big Ten's defensive back of the year had another great game in Iowa's 27-22 win over Mississippi State in the Outback Bowl. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

Amani Hooker and his friends helped keep the Hawkeyes close.

One of the most important aspects of this game was Iowa’s defense making key stops to keep things closer than they should have been in a first quarter when the offense netted negative yardage.

A little luck didn’t hurt, either.

On Mississippi State’s second drive, a third-and-3 call from the Iowa 27 was perfectly designed. A wide-receiver screen to Deddrick Thomas had every Hawkeye accounted for with blockers. But Amani Hooker, in his final game as a Hawkeye, not only shook off the block of receiver Austin Williams in space, he lunged around him to make a one-armed tackle of Thomas for a mere 1-yard gain.

That elite defensive play showed Hooker's NFL readiness; and forced a field goal. He'll be missed.

A Mississippi State drive later, the Hawkeyes got a big break.

On first-and-15 from Iowa’s 30, quarterback Nick Fitzgerald threw one of his best passes of the day — a perfectly placed ball over the middle to Keytaon Thompson, between the zone coverage of safeties Geno Stone and Jake Gervase. If Thompson catches the ball on the run at Iowa’s 12-yard line, he would’ve jogged into the end zone for a 10-0 Bulldogs lead.

Instead, he dropped it. Iowa got the stop and forced another field goal.

The 6-0 deficit proved much more manageable than 10-0 or 14-0 would’ve.

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The Hawkeyes beat Mississippi State, 27-22, as Gervase picked off a fourth-quarter pass in the end zone in a tight game. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

Matt Hankins made the game’s most underrated play.

In a game filled with memorable moments, one that can’t be forgotten (but probably has been) was the unlikely tackle Hankins made after giving up a long pass completion to Stephen Guidry on Mississippi State’s first play of the fourth quarter.

Guidry got behind Iowa’s secondary and looked to be coasting into the end zone, but Hankins — the sophomore cornerback — dove from a full sprint to get his arms around Guidry’s right ankle, tripping up the streaking receiver at the 1-yard line.

Hankins’ effort was further unnoticed because ESPN didn’t air a full replay, because Mississippi State rushed to the line of scrimmage in an effort to score on first-and-goal from the 1. But the stout Iowa defensive line pushed Mississippi State backwards on three straight plays to force a short field goal — and cementing Hankins’ play as heroic.

Instead of a 52-yard completion, it was a 51-yarder.

Instead of seven go-ahead points, Mississippi State settled for three.

A shoestring tackle worth four points that changed the entire trajectory of the fourth quarter.

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Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa on his strip-sack that helped turn the tide in Outback Bowl, and forming an impressive tandem with Chauncey Golston Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

I’m still not sure what Joe Moorhead was thinking.

Mississippi State’s first-year coach aggressively went for a fourth-and-2 on Mississippi State’s first drive of the day — and converted. Yet with his team down five, 27-22, and facing fourth-and-inches from his own 34½-yard line with barely more than 4 minutes remaining … he punts?

Credit Jack Hockaday with a firm tackle on third-and-2 run to stop Aeris Williams inches shy of the 35, the point of a first down. And credit Iowa’s defensive line for surely getting inside Moorhead’s head on that previous goal-line stand.

But the decision to punt helped Iowa — without the benefit of a first down — milk an additional 1:44 of clock, not to mention Mississippi State’s final timeout. Even though Moorhead got his best-case scenario to work out, the Bulldogs only had 2:22 and no timeouts after getting the ball back at their own 31.

Mississippi State has the SEC's all-time leading quarterback rusher and the nation's top defense, but is worried about not gaining a foot of grass?

Iowa will take that bizarre conservatism. And its fresh defense would predictably make a final stop against the scrambling Mississippi State offense to clinch the win.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

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