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Holiday Bowl Preview: No. 22 USC vs No. 19 Iowa

USC returns to the Holiday Bowl for the third time this decade to face No. 19 Iowa Hawkeyes.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 23 UCLA at USC Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After missing out on a bowl game last season, the USC Trojans will make their return to the postseason with a return trip to San Diego for the Holiday Bowl. This will be their third one this decade. Ever since their bowl destination was announced, the Trojans have undergone a lot of drama with the head coaching status of Clay Helton, the backlash of retaining Helton, and the poor recruiting results. The team, on the other hand, has blocked out the noise and focused on playing preparing for the bowl game. Their opponent, the Iowa Hawkeyes, come into this game with a 9-3 record this season. Their three losses were by a combined 13 points against Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin. All teams that currently rank in the top 15. Iowa will present a challenge interesting challenge for the Trojans with their difference in style of football.


The USC offense got great news last week with their offensive coordinator Graham Harrell signing a three-year extension to remain with the Trojans. There’s plenty of reason for players and fans to be excited about Harrell staying around. The offense saw a dramatic improvement under the offensive coordinator. USC ranked in the top 20 in total offense, which was a major upgrade from their 2018 season. A huge part of that comes from the passing game. An area that many had concerns about when starting quarterback JT Daniels went down with a torn ACL injury against Fresno State, came to life when Kedon Slovis stepped in and grew into the role. The freshman threw for 3,242 yards, 28 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions. Slovis ended the season throwing for over 400 yards in three consecutive games on his way to winning the Pac-12 freshman offensive player of the year award.

What also helped Slovis was the talent of the Trojans wide receivers. Regarded as one of the best in the nation, opposing defenses had to take their pick between covering Amon-Ra St. Brown, Tyler Vaughns, and Michael Pittman Jr. Early in the season Washington and BYU held the USC passing attack in check by dropping 8 into coverage and confusing Slovis and Matt Fink. Outside those games USC wide receivers managed to have an amazing season. Freshman Drake London played himself into the mix late in the season with Solid performances against Cal, Arizona State, and UCLA.

The running game, on the other hand, has been up and down for the Trojans. Vavae Malepeai, Stephen Carr, and Markese Stepp played a key role the offense which opened up the passing game. Unfortunately the three backs went down in back to back weeks (Malepeai vs Notre Dame and Stepp/Carr vs Arizona) leaving the Trojans with only one healthy scholarship running back in freshman Kenan Christon. While he had a solid game in the 3rd and 4th quarter of the Arizona game as well as the Colorado game, He didn’t provide the production that Carr, Stepp, and Malepeai provided for them.

USC’s offense will see an Iowa defense that is ranked No. 12 in the nation in total defense. The Hawkeyes allow 304 yards per game and 13.2 points per game. One thing that pops out when talking about this Iowa defense is their ability to defend the pass. Their secondary gives up 184.2 yards per game and has given up 12 touchdowns. They do have 11 interceptions as a unit with senior defensive back Michael Ojemudia leading the team with 3 interceptions. The question will be, how will Iowa defend an air raid offense that’s one of the nations best in pass offense and slow down the talented USC wide receivers? There’s no question that the Hawkeyes will see a much different offensive style compared to what they’ve seen throughout this season.


The USC defense has a tale of two stories. The Trojans secondary has surprisingly been the bright spot on that side of the ball. Cornerbacks Olaijah Griffin, Isaac Taylor-Stuart, and Chris Steele have been very solid for the team this season. Greg Johnson has also held his own playing in the nickel slot this season. Meanwhile, safeties Isaiah Pola-Mao and Talanoa Hufanga clearly played a huge role in the success of the Trojans secondary being solid. You can point to Hufanga being the MVP on the defense as his presence disguises a good chunk of the Trojans mistakes.

The defensive front seven on the other hand has done well creating pressure and getting to the quarterback this season. As a unit they currently have 33 sacks on the season, which is the third most in the Pac-12. USC’s defensive line has played a huge part into that this season. The line features defensive end Christain Rector, Drake Jackson, Jay Tufele, and Marlon Tuipulotu. The improved play of the line has helped the defense in the interior run defense and pass defense.

However, the USC defense has had their share of struggles this season. One being defending the run with another creating turnovers. The Trojans run defense has been an issue this season and turned into a frustrating thing that’s continuously repeated. Part of that issue has been the Trojans inability to contain mobile quarterbacks and misdirection runs. USC is ranked in the bottom half of the Pac-12 in team defense this season giving up 166.3 yards per game on the ground giving up 16 touchdowns on the ground.

Iowa will bring a balanced attack on offense mixing the run and pass together. Hawkeyes quarterback Nate Stanley comes in throwing for 2,738 yards, 14 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions. The senior quarterback has shown a solid ability in moving the ball through the air. A lot of that comes from the running attack of the Hawkeyes which features running backs Tyler Goodson and Mekhi Sargent. Both split an equal amount of carries this year with Goodson owning the carries this season by one. Combined the duo have 1,133 yards on the ground with 8 rushing touchdowns. Expect Iowa to bring a physical style to the USC defense and attempt to keep them on their heels by throwing the run in there. If defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast has trouble with Iowa rushing attack then expect a long day for the Trojans defense.

Key Notes

  • USC leads the series over Iowa 7-2. Trojans have a 6 game winning streak against the Hawkeyes.
  • The last meeting between the two programs came in the 2003 Orange Bowl where USC defeated Iowa 38-17. Carson Palmer won the Orange Bowl MVP that night.
  • This is the Trojans 5th consecutive bowl match up against a team from the Big Ten conference.
  • USC is making it’s third Holiday Bowl appearance. They’re currently 1-1 in San Diego (Win vs Nebraska in 2014 and Loss vs Wisconsin in 2015.)
  • The Holiday Bowl is one of three Non-New Year Six Bowl games to feature two ranked teams. (Citrius: No. 13 Alabama vs No. 14 Michigan and Outback: No. 12 Auburn vs No. 18 Minnesota.)
  • Iowa is a 2 point favorite over USC. The Trojans are 6-5-1 against the spread and 1-3 as an underdog this season. Their lone win as an underdog came against Utah.