Defense, big plays carry Florida past Iowa in Outback Bowl

Florida trounces Iowa to win Outback Bowl (0:53)

Austin Appleby throws for 222 yards and two touchdowns as No. 17 Florida defeats Iowa 30-3 to win the Outback Bowl. (0:53)

From the moment the Outback Bowl pairing was announced, most people figured it would be a game only a punter could love.

Both No. 17 Florida and Iowa brought hard-hitting defenses to Tampa's Raymond James Stadium, but their offenses had been underwhelming -- to put it kindly -- most of the season. Neither team's identity changed that much Monday, but the Gators came up with all the big plays to run away with a 30-3 victory.

It was no surprise that Florida's defense would dominate. That side of the ball has carried the program to 19 wins and back-to-back SEC East titles the past two years under coach Jim McElwain, and it continued to shine on Monday despite missing several key players to injury.

Iowa managed just 226 total yards and threatened to reach the end zone only once. When the Hawkeyes went for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line in the first half, Florida blew up the power play and tackled LeShun Daniels Jr. for a loss of 2 yards. On the second play of the fourth quarter, Gators defensive back Chauncey Gardner intercepted Hawkeyes quarterback C.J. Beathard on third down and took it 58 yards for a back-breaking score.

We knew Florida's defense could make winning plays. Even after a 30-point showing, it remains obvious that the Gators need to find more offensive explosiveness so they can do more than just slog through the SEC East and get pummeled in the SEC title game again. And it starts with the passing game.

Austin Appleby filled a need at quarterback for the Gators this season after Luke Del Rio's injury, but Appleby hardly solved all the issues. A graduate transfer from Purdue, Appleby threw two interceptions in Florida's first eight snaps Monday, both coming on tipped balls that Iowa defensive backs played expertly.

Credit Appleby for bouncing back from the rough start, though, and throwing for 222 yards and two touchdowns. The first one came on a seemingly harmless screen pass to running back Mark Thompson late in the first half. Yet Iowa uncharacteristically missed at least five tackles, and Thompson kept running until he had gone 84 yards and into the end zone.

It was a solid final performance by Appleby. Now the attention turns to the future in Gainesville, where redshirt freshmen Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask and freshman Jake Allen will battle to be the next starter under center. Even with all the wins McElwain has piled up, the pressure will be on to improve the offense to something better than occasionally serviceable and often unsightly.

Iowa also will be moving on at the quarterback position. Beathard turned in a gutsy performance Monday, but the senior tweaked his hamstring while trying to plow into the end zone in the first half. He was hampered the rest of the way and wasn't moving well at all by the time of his pick-six. He threw two more interceptions in the fourth quarter, including a second by Gardner.

The Hawkeyes' coaching staff stayed loyal to Beathard and didn't turn the reins over to Nathan Stanley, a true freshman expected to earn the starting job in 2017, until there was 2:58 left. He attempted only one pass. Perhaps Iowa should have followed Penn State's example, which got a jump-start on its future when Trace McSorley replaced an injured Christian Hackenberg in last year's TaxSlayer Bowl loss.

Not much has gone right in bowls lately for coach Kirk Ferentz's Iowa program, which lost its fifth straight postseason game. Those games haven't been all that close, either, as Iowa lost by 17 to Tennessee two years ago and 45-16 to Stanford in last year's Rose Bowl.

A lack of athletes, especially on offense, has been the team's undoing on this stage. Only junior running back Akrum Wadley showed much burst against Florida, running for 115 yards on 22 carries. He'll be a main building block for the 2017 Hawkeyes, who must find more offensive playmakers.

The same still holds true for the Gators. But after a blowout bowl victory, there should be some optimism and momentum in Gainesville.