The former Marietta High School star made plenty of freshman mistakes Wednesday, however they weren’t nearly as costly as they could have been for the 14th-ranked Tigers with Jeremy Hill rushing for 216 yards and two touchdowns in a 21-14 victory.
The second quarterback in school history to make his first college start in a bowl game, Jennings fretted over an interception that helped Iowa (8-5) get back in the game.
But with the outcome on the line, he simply turned and handed the ball to Hill, who made sure LSU (10-3) would not lose.
“Anthony in his first start was tight,” coach Les Miles said, adding that Jennings learned some lessons will be beneficial moving forward with his career.
“He wasn’t perfect by any stretch,” Miles said. “But he did what he had to do.”
Craig Loston’s fourth-quarter interception stopped a potential tying drive, giving Hill a chance to put the game out of reach by carrying four times for 87 yards on a six-play, 92-yard march that gave LSU (10-3) a 21-7 lead.
Iowa (8-5) pulled within a touchdown for the second time in 4 minutes after Jordan Cotton returned the ensuing kickoff to the Tigers’ 4.
Jennings ran for a first-quarter touchdown, but the true freshman struggled to hit open receivers while completing seven of 19 passes for 82 yards. In addition to throwing an interception that Iowa’s John Lowdermilk returned 71 yards, he was sacked four times while standing in for the injured Zach Mettenberger.
C.J. Beathard replaced Jake Rudock at quarterback for Iowa on the first play of the fourth quarter. His fourth-down interception stopped one promising drive, but he also tossed a 4-yard TD pass to Kevonte Martin-Manley that trimmed Iowa’s deficit to 21-14 with 1:42 remaining.
Lowdermilk set up Iowa’s other TD — Mark Weisman’s 2-yard run in the third quarter — with his interception return to the LSU 1.
Officials initially ruled Lowdermilk, who was untouched on the return, scored. But the TD was reversed when a replay review determined the Iowa defender dropped the ball before crossing the goal line.
“It was just an embarrassing play, and that’s not Iowa Hawkeye football. ... I really regret it and I apologize,” Lowdermilk said. “It was just a sickening feeling all around. I was just so happy Mark scored. It was a bonehead play on my part.”
The victory enabled LSU to finish with at least 10 wins for a school-record fourth consecutive season. The loss ended Iowa’s three-game winning streak.
“Our team wanted to create a legacy, and the seniors wanted to be the first group to win 10 games four years in a row. They wanted to win a bowl championship and they wanted to commit to playing as a team,” Miles said. “The hard work that each and every guy has went through, there was no question they were going to play hard together.”
Hill, a 235-pound sophomore who rushed with 1,401 yards and 16 TDs this season, averaged 7.7 yards per carry on 28 attempts. On the clinching drive, he delivered runs of 2, 28, 20 and, finally, 37 yards for his second touchdown. He also scored on a 14-yard run in the second quarter.
“Given an opportunity to close out a game, he knows what to do,” Miles said.
“I took it on my shoulders that I needed to make plays to win the football game,” Hill said. “Great players have that mentality.”
Iowa was back in a bowl after staying at home with a 4-8 record in 2012. The Hawkeyes’ four regular-season losses came to nationally ranked Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Northern Illinois, teams that took a combined record of 45-6 into the Rose, Orange, Capital One and Poinsettia bowls.
LSU’s first trip to Tampa since 1989, when the Outback was known as the Hall of Fame Bowl, capped another successful season under Les Miles, but one that fell short of expectations for a program accustomed to contending for national titles.
Besides a three-touchdown loss to Alabama, the Tigers dropped three-point decisions to SEC rivals Georgia and Mississippi, while also displaying their potential by being the only team to defeat No. 2 Auburn during the regular season.
Jennings came off the bench in the closing minutes to finish a comeback victory over Arkansas in the regular-season finale, leading a 99-yard game-winning drive that he finished with a 49-yard TD pass.
Miles expected Jennings to play well, citing poise as one of the 19-year-old’s strongest assets. Iowa didn’t have much film to study of the young quarterback, but Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said any newcomer who entered a program such as LSU’s and rose to No. 2 on the depth chart as a true freshman figured to have the makings of a star.
And with a talented supporting cast around him, Jennings didn’t have to carry the Tigers on his back Wednesday.
Hill and receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry combined with Mettenberger this season to make LSU the first team in SEC history to feature a 3,000-yard passer, two 1,000-yard receivers and a 1,000-yard rusher in the same year. And the Tigers didn’t stray from the formula that made them one of the league’s top offenses.
Hill broke a 42-yard run on his first carry, setting the tone against an Iowa defense that entered yielding just under 121 yards per game rushing and a little more than 303 overall, third in the Big Ten and seventh nationally. Seven plays later, Jennings finished a 77-yard drive with his 2-yard TD run.
“It was a gutsy performance by Iowa,” Miles said. “We had a great amount of respect for them coming in and they showed that respect was well earned.”