No. 20 Florida closes the door to the 2016 football season on Monday when it faces No. 21 Iowa in the Outback Bowl in Tampa. The Gators (8-4) look to get a win against the Hawkeyes (8-4) and avoid ending the year on a three-game losing streak for the second consecutive year under coach Jim McElwain. For that to happen, here are three keys to the game:
Stuffing the Run
All season, Florida’s defense has been tested by some of the best running backs college football has to offer, including Tennessee’s Jalen Hurd, Vanderbilt’s Ralph Webb, LSU’s duo of Leonard Fournette and Derrius Guice, and Florida State’s Dalvin Cook.
The Gators have two more quality runners to face in the Outback Bowl in Iowa’s LeShun Daniels Jr. and Akrum Wadley. Daniels, a 6-0, 225-pound senior, has rushed for 1,013 yards this year on 198 carries. Wadley, a 5-11, 191-pound junior, has 966 yards and is averaging 6.6 yards per carry. Each has 10 touchdowns.
During the Hawkeyes’ three-game win streak, the two have combined for 673 rushing yards and six of Iowa’s 12 touchdowns. UF’s defense, by comparison, is giving up an average of 142 rushing yards per contest and allowing just 3.81 yards per rush — the latter of which is the 30th-best mark in the country.
Florida’s defensive line, led by redshirt junior Caleb Brantley and senior Joey Ivie, will need to create penetration and win the battle in the trenches to give the Gators an edge.
Facing a King
Iowa cornerback Desmond King is one of the best in the country.
The senior is a repeat All-American who won the Jim Thorpe Award last season. Now, in the final game of his collegiate career, King plans to shut down Florida’s hit-and-miss offense.
Iowa ranks 27th in the country in pass defense, allowing opponents an average of less than 200 yards through the air per game.
King paces the group with nine total defended passes (two interceptions and seven pass breakups) despite facing limited targets, which could make the day difficult for sophomore Antonio Callaway and freshman Tyrie Cleveland, the Gators’ main big-play receivers.
“When the ball’s up in the air, he’s really good at coming down with those 50-50 [balls], and he’s big and physical,” UF quarterback Austin Appleby said. “It’s definitely going to be a big challenge for our receivers.”
Winning the battle on special teams
With both teams ranked in the top 10 nationally in scoring defense and the bottom 25 in total offense, points will likely be few and far between, making the field-position battle and special teams performance all the more important.
For Florida, that responsibility will fall on punter Johnny Townsend and kicker Eddy Pineiro. Townsend, a junior, leads the nation in punting average (48.05 yards). Pineiro, a redshirt sophomore and former soccer standout at Miami Sunset Senior High, has made 81.8 percent (18 of 22) of his field-goal attempts, with half of his makes coming from at least 40 yards.
Iowa, on the other hand, ranks ninth nationally this season in kickoff returns (25.4 yards) and 13th in punt returns (12.3 yards). The Hawkeyes have only attempted 12 field goals this season, making nine for a 75 percent success rate.