USC allowed touchdowns all four times Iowa had the ball in the first half of the 42nd annual Holiday Bowl, then had its comeback hopes end by allowing the final 21 points in a 49-24 loss.

“They played better than us,” Trojans coach Clay Helton said after USC’s second-largest loss in a bowl game, behind only their 49-0 loss to Michigan in the 1948 Rose Bowl.

“When we look at it, we’ll look back at this tape, it will be a first-half story of them being really good on third-down efficiency, us not really getting off the field. Then the second half, having some critical errors as far as turnovers in the red zone.”

The Hawkeyes converted three of four third downs and their only fourth down in the first half, when they led in time of possession, 18:12-11:48.

With USC trailing 35-24 early in the fourth quarter Friday, a center snap sailed over quarterback Matt Fink’s head with Kristian Welch recovering for Iowa at the Trojans’ 6-yard line. Nate Stanley threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Smith three plays later.

Nick Niemann intercepted a pass by Fink and returned it 25 yards for a touchdown with one minute, 43 seconds remaining.

USC never led, but cut the deficit to 28-24 on Chase McGrath’s 32-yard field goal as time expired in the second quarter and Stephen Carr’s 2-yard run on the opening drive of the third quarter.

The Trojans (8-5) seemed poised to take their first lead when Michael Brown recovered his own onside kickoff and Kedon Slovis completed an 11-yard pass to Tyler Vaughns on the first play of the drive, giving USC a first down on Iowa’s 43-yard line.

However, Slovis was knocked out of the game on the next play when he suffered an elbow injury on a sack by defensive end A.J. Epenesa. The Trojans were forced to punt three plays later and the Hawkeyes responded with a 14-play, 90-yard drive that consumed 7:19, culminating with Tyler Goodson’s 1-yard touchdown run with 3:54 left in the third quarter.

USC outgained the Hawkeyes 356 yards to 328, including a 153-119 advantage in the second half. Iowa led 33:25-26:36 in time of possession. Both teams had 20 first downs.

“The biggest thing for us tonight, it was a complete team victory,” Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said. “It was offense, special teams, defense. That’s just good football.”

Iowa receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette was selected as the offensive MVP for scoring touchdowns on a 6-yard first-quarter run and a 98-yard kickoff return and 12-yard pass from Stanley, both in the second quarter.

Epenesa was the defensive MVP for making 2 1/2 quarterback sacks before a crowd at SDCCU Stadium announced at 50,123, the game’s first crowd larger than 50,000 since 2014 when it drew 55,789 for the Trojans’ 45-42 victory over Nebraska.

Stanley completed 18 of 27 passes for 213 yards and two touchdowns in his third start in a bowl game, all Iowa victories. The Hawkeyes defeated Boston College, 27-20, in the 2017 Pinstripe Bowl, and Mississippi State, 27-22, in the 2019 Outback Bowl.

Slovis completed 22 of 30 passes for 260 yards, including a 4-yard touchdown pass to London Drake on USC’s first possession and a 16-yard touchdown pass to Vavae Malepeai on its second.

Fink completed 12 of 18 passes for 74 yards with one interception.

The Hawkeyes (10-3) opened the scoring on Tyrone Tracy’s 23-yard touchdown run on the game’s opening possession.

This is the first time the Trojans have had back-to-back seasons with at least five losses since 2000, Paul Hackett’s last as their coach when they were 5-7, and 2001, when they were 6-6 in Pete Carroll’s first.

USC was 5-7 in 2018.

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