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SAN DIEGO — That first catch, Brandon Smith said, was a big deal.

It was the third play of Friday’s Holiday Bowl when, on third-and-9 from the Iowa 26-yard line, Smith caught a 10-yard pass from Nate Stanley.

It kept the Hawkeyes’ opening touchdown possession alive in the 49-24 win over USC.

But it was a big deal for Smith, who had played just one play in the last five regular-season games after suffering an ankle injury that required surgery.

“That early catch to get that first down, it was like a confidence boost,” Smith said. “Maybe I shouldn’t say a confidence boost, but it felt like, ‘OK, now you’re in the game.’”

Smith was more than in the game, he was a crucial part of Iowa’s win. He had four catches for 32 yards, including a touchdown early in the fourth quarter.

Smith was injured late in Iowa’s 26-20 win over Purdue on Oct. 19.

The injury, he said, bothered him.

“I had my ups and downs,” Smith said. “That was my first major injury. It was hard to deal with it.”

Even with the time off after the Nov. 29 win at Nebraska, Smith was questionable for this game until early in the week, when coach Kirk Ferentz said he expected Smith to play.

Smith wasn’t on the field for the first play, but he was there early when the Hawkeyes needed him.

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His touchdown catch came when quarterback Nate Stanley scrambled out of the Trojans’ pass rush. Stanley looked like he was going to try to get to the end zone on the third-and-goal play from the USC 6-yard line. But he pulled up before crossing the line of scrimmage, and hit Smith in the end zone.

“I was about to second-guess myself and start blocking,” Smith said. “It felt amazing to be back. To be back, get that touchdown, it felt good.”

LaPorta’s big game

Iowa freshman tight end Sam LaPorta led the team with six catches for 44 yards — both career highs — in the win.

“I think everybody on the offense worked as one unit," LaPorta said in quotes provided after the game — freshman aren't allowed to speak to the media. "When everybody is working together, it allows us to play fast, physical, and together. It allowed me to make some plays and get singled out. I made those plays. It was a great opportunity for me and the rest of the team.”

Two of LaPorta’s catches came on Iowa’s 14-play, 90-yard touchdown drive late in the third quarter, both on third-down plays.

“Third down is a critical down and we want to stay on the field and keep moving the ball,” LaPorta said.

Game notes

• Iowa’s 49 points scored are the second most scored in a bowl game in school history (55 vs. Texas in 1084 Freedom Bowl). The 49 points scored were the second most allowed by USC this season (56 vs. Oregon).

• Iowa won its third consecutive bowl game, tying its longest such streak in program history (2009 Outback, 2010 Orange, 2010 Insight).

• Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz is 9‐8 all‐time in bowl games. Only Ohio State (10) has more bowl wins (including playoff wins) among Big Ten teams since 2001.

• Iowa recorded its sixth 10‐win season since 1999. The Hawkeyes have 47 wins over the last five years, the most of any five‐year period in program history.

• Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa raised his season sack total to 11 1/2, the most by any Hawkeye since Adrian Clayborn had 11 1/2 in 2009. Epenesa had a team‐high 10 1/2 sacks in 2018. He is the first Hawkeye to record double‐digit sack totals in consecutive seasons since Matt Roth in 2002‐03 (10 in 2002, 12 in 2003).