TAMPA, Fla. — They are Pittsburgh raised.
So, someone asked Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz and Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead at Saturday’s Outback Bowl press conference if their teams reflect their hometown’s toughness.
“I think all of us are products of our environment, certainly, and how we’re raised and who impacts you and influences you,” Ferentz said.
“I think western Pennsylvania prides itself in certainly being a blue-collar, roll-up-your-sleeves, go-to-work, shut-your-mouth and let-the-production-speak-for-itself type of town,” Moorhead said. “I think any football program, that resonates because that’s what you want to see in your players.”
Tuesday’s Outback Bowl doesn’t have a high-flying, scoreboard-rattling feel to it. Mississippi State’s defense ranks No. 1 among Football Bowl Subdivision teams in seven defensive categories, including points per game at just 12. Iowa’s defense gave up an average of 17.4 points per game.
Mississippi State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop was a finalist for the Broyles Award, given to the top assistant coach in college football. Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker has molded a stable group with some quirks — the Hawkeyes can play a 4-2-5 with safety Amani Hooker in a hybrid linebacker-safety role — and a rotation of eight defensive linemen that stay fresh through a game.
But, these are teams that take their cues from their head coaches, one who has established a pattern of winning teams, one who is in his first season and has crafted his own culture.
“I think that’s one of the funniest things about this game,” Ferentz said. “What are the odds of two guys from Iowa and Mississippi … we probably grew up 15 miles from each other.”
These two coaches know each other well, and it has nothing to do with hometowns.
Moorhead was offensive coordinator at Penn State in 2016 and 2017 when the Nittany Lions defeated Iowa twice, 41-14 in 2016, 21-19 last season. His two offenses put up 1,178 yards on the Hawkeyes, the first game a rout, the second game a heartbreaker with Trace McSorley throwing a touchdown pass to Juwan Johnson on the final play of the game.
Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald could be just as haunting to the Hawkeyes as McSorley — he’s had six 100-yard rushing games this season.
“There’s some similarities obviously and some differences, too and probably the biggest similarity is they both in my mind, the quarterback was the catalyst,” Ferentz said. “I think that’s really obvious. You look at Mississippi State, you look at the amount of carries he’s had relative to anybody in the conference not just quarterbacks, you know, he is where everything starts with their offensive football team.
“I felt the same way about Penn State. That quarterback is a tremendous player. Now, they look different but both of them are leaders, they are winners and you know, so that to me is where it all kind of starts, and if you don’t have an answer, somewhat of an answer, you’re going to be in trouble there.”
Ferentz’s culture at Iowa has been built over 20 seasons. He’s the school’s all-time winningest coach, and this is Iowa’s sixth appearance in the Outback Bowl.
“I’m not getting ready to retire, so I’m not going to get real reflective other than just say, I feel very, very fortunate,” Ferentz said. “I’ve never had a bad job, going back to teaching at Worcester Academy right out of college. Been really fortunate that way. Been around great people.”
Moorhead has been a head coach before Mississippi State, going to three FCS playoffs at Fordham from 2013-15.
It’s not a rebuild — Dan Mullen left the program after last season to go to Florida and left Moorhead with a solid group.
“When you have the opportunity and you become a next head coach, you’re taking over because a guy before you has not done particularly well, or he’s done somewhat well and had an opportunity to move on, and in my case it’s the latter,” Moorhead said. “Coach Mullen did a tremendous job in laying the foundation and taking this program to a level it had not been before, and I think that’s my job as a coach to try to build off of that.”
Two Pittsburgh boys, one who has built his program, one who is building.
They shook hands after autographing their teams’ respective helmets.
“See you in a couple of days,” Ferentz said.