TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — No. 20 Florida dominated the Outback with stingy defense and a persistent offense that did its job, too.
Chauncey Gardner, Jr., returned one of his two fourth-quarter interceptions 58 yards for a touchdown, and graduate transfer Austin Appleby threw for 222 yards and two TDs to pace Monday’s 30-3 rout of No. 21 Iowa.
With Gardner grabbing game MVP honors, the Gators (9-4) held up their end of what many expected to be a day defense ruled , especially considering Florida entered ranked 115th in the nation in total offense — five spots ahead of the sputtering Hawkeyes.
Conversely, the teams were sixth and 24th, respectively, in total defense.
“The MVP, it goes to our guys up front, the linebackers and the coaching staff because they put me in good position to make plays. ... It should be a team MVP,” Gardner said. “Our motto is just go out there and have fun, and play our game.”
Mark Thompson scored on an 85-yard pass play in the first half and Appleby, who spent the past four seasons at Purdue, tossed a 6-yard TD pass to DeAndre Goolsby to break the game open late in the third quarter.
Florida (9-4) rebounded from lopsided losses to archrival Florida State and No. 1 Alabama, scoring more points on Iowa (8-5) than the Hawkeyes allowed to Michigan, Illinois and Nebraska combined while ending the regular season on a three-game winning streak.
“It was a tough day for our football team,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Our team really had a good month, they practiced and prepared well. I’m not sure there’s a thing I’d go back and change. Ultimately, we didn’t play well enough to come up with a victory.”
Iowa’s C.J. Beathard led an early field goal drive and managed to get his team close to the end zone on two other occasions. Florida’s defense stiffened both times, stopping the Hawkeyes on downs at the Gator 3 in the second quarter and forcing them to settle for a 30-yard field goal that sailed wide right midway through the third quarter.
Appleby, who actually began his career at Purdue against Iowa, shrugged off throwing interceptions on Florida’s first two drives of the day to finish 14 of 25 passing.
“We didn’t panic early. We knew Iowa would come out swinging and make some plays on us early,” Appleby said. “We had some bad luck, but didn’t panic, and the defense made some stops and we got on a roll.”
Akrum Wadley ran for 115 yards, giving Iowa a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in the same season for the first time. The junior finished with 1,081, and LeShun Daniels wound up with 1,058 after gaining 45 Monday.
Florida: The Gators could be looking at having to replace at least three stalwarts on defense — tackle Caleb Brantley and cornerbacks Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson — who are expected to leave school early to enter the NFL draft. Linebacker Alex Anzalone and defensive back Duke Dawson also are considering turning pro.
Iowa: Like Florida’s Tabor and Wilson, cornerback Desmond King is a likely high NFL draft pick. He won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back as a junior and was just as good this year, though opponents’ reluctance to throw his way — three interceptions this season vs. eight in 2015 — may have hurt his chances to win the award again as a senior. The Hawkeyes will also lose quarterback C.J. Beathard, who finished his career 21-7 as a starter.
Beathard directed the best drive of the game by either team, moving Iowa from its own 36 to inside the Florida 10 with help from runs of 27 yards by Akrum Wadley and 11 yards by LeShun Daniels, plus an 18-yard pass to tight end George Kittle on third-and-14 from the Gators 28. Three plays later, Beathard dropped back to throw before scrambling for a 6-yard gain near the goal line. The Hawkeyes thought he scored, but officials ruled him down at the 1. Daniels was dropped for a 2-yard loss on fourth down. Florida snapped the 3-3 tie less than six minutes later, when Thompson scored on the longest reception and TD in Outback Bowl history.
“That was big. Momentum definitely switched in their favor after that,” Wadley said. “But that was just one drive. A football game is four quarters, and we had to bounce back.”