Four Downs: Jeremy Hill, LSU survive late Iowa push

LSU running back Jeremy Hill rushed for a career-high 216 yards and two touchdowns in an Outback Bowl win.

Kim Klement/Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The LSU Tigers needed every last bit of production from star running back Jeremy Hill to hold off the Iowa Hawkeyes, winning the Outback Bowl 21-14 on New Years Day. Here are four observations from the game:

Jeremy Hill is an absolute load to bring down, as SEC opponents Auburn, Mississippi State, Florida and Arkansas could have warned the Hawkeyes entering this game. At 6-foot-2 and 235 pounds, the redshirt sophomore is projected as one of this year’s top NFL Draft prospects at running back (should he choose to enter his name) after rushing for 1,185 yards and 14 touchdowns in 11 regular season games.

Iowa’s defense now understands why.

Hill paced a one-dimensional LSU offense on Wednesday afternoon by rushing for a career-high 216 yards and two touchdowns. Starting from the first play of the game, when Hill took off for 42 yards, Hill logged six runs of 10 yards or more in the game, including three on the game-sealing TD drive in which he capped off his day with a 37-yard scoring rumble.

The SEC is overloaded with underclass talent at the running back position with Todd Gurley (Georgia), T.J. Yeldon (Alabama), Mike Davis (South Carolina) and Alex Collins (Arkansas) — four of the SEC’s top seven rushers this season in terms of yards per game — and Hill has taken his place at or near the top of the list with another impressive season.

The pregame analysis was fairly elementary: Iowa ranked 75th nationally in scoring offense (27.3 points per game) and LSU ranked 30th in scoring defense (22.7 points per game). The discrepancy in NFL-caliber talent only underscored the gap, and sometimes things just play out according to plan.

Iowa sputtered against an LSU defense led by defensive tackle Anthony Johnson and safety Craig Loston, going scoreless in the first half and finishing the game 13-for-30 passing for 157 yards and two interceptions and 76 yards on the ground. The Hawkeyes could not stay on the field (31.5 percent third-down conversion rate) and lost the turnover battle 3-1. Even on the two scoring "drives" the Tigers allowed, the Hawkeyes were handed a comically short field — starting inside the 5-yard line.

There was never a question that LSU’s defense held the edge in Tampa. The 10-win Tigers looked better on paper, and played better on the field.

The underdog Hawkeyes can thank Jordan Cotton and John Lowdermilk for helping to keep the team’s head above water in a game that could have been one-sided, albeit not a blowout due to LSU’s inept passing game.

It was Lowdermilk, a 6-foot-2 junior defensive back, who set up Iowa’s first touchdown by picking off LSU freshman QB Anthony Jennings and taking the ball back 71 yards to the 1-yard line. In a 14-0 game that was showing little promise for Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock system and a plodding rushing attack, it was a spark. Junior running back Mark Weisman would punch the ball in a few plays later on one of his few productive runs on the day.

After Hill punched home his second touchdown and handed LSU a two-score lead with two minutes remaining in the game, the game was all but over … until Cotton took off for a 96-yard kickoff return that set up a touchdown pass from backup QB C.J. Beahthard and an onside kick attempt for a potential comeback. The Hawkeyes did not get the bounce on its final kickoff, but they made the most of the few bounces that did go their way in this one.

Through the first few games of the season, the talk around Baton Rouge was starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger’s development in first-year offensive coordinator Cam Cameron’s system, as the Tigers were one of the most explosive offenses around. But with Mettenberger watching from the sideline with a torn ACL, the Tigers’ offense was grounded in the Outback Bowl.

Anthony Jennings, a dual-threat option and one of the most sought after signal-callers in the 2013 class, provided little to no threat to an underrated Iowa defense that held opponents to 18.8 points per game this season. The true freshman finished the game 7-of-19 with just 82 yards and that costly interception to Lowdermilk and did not punish the Hawkeyes with his legs outside of a goalline touchdown run. That will need to improve over the next eight months or so if the Marietta, Ga., native is going to hang onto the starting job and lead the Tigers to another 10-win season in 2014.

Much like the Aaron Murray-Hutson Mason situation at Georgia, there is a thin silver lining to a program — especially one not competing for a BCS title, etc. — losing a starting senior quarterback late in the season in that the future is forced into action. Jennings struggled mightily, but gained experience and something build on this offseason.