LOS ANGELES – Passengers piled on the bandwagon as Iowa piled up the victories during its historic football season.
The milestone moments from the school’s first 12-win season turned skeptics into believers on the outside.
But when did those inside the Iowa camp realize they had something? If asked to identify the defining moment of their undefeated march through the regular season – the one where they knew special was happening – where would the Hawkeyes themselves point?
The question triggered an assortment of responses Tuesday morning as the sixth-ranked Iowa (12-1) took a break from preparation for its New Year’s Day clash with No. 5 Stanford (11-2) to take part in Rose Bowl media day festivities.
“I could go on and on,” said offensive line coach Brian Ferentz after reciting key moments from each of Iowa’s first six victories. “I give you a six-minute answer to a simple question.”
But his points are valid. He liked the energy the Hawkeyes brought to the opener against Illinois State, the way they “attacked the whole game” and “played like an Iowa football team” again.
He pointed to a couple hustle plays the following week when the Hawkeyes won on the road at Iowa State, where Matt VandeBerg scooped up a fumble and scored and undersized walk-on Riley McCarron dropped high school blue-chipper Allen Lazard on a punt.
“That, to me, was defining,” Ferentz said, “like ‘This is Iowa football and how you play.’”
Ferentz appreciated, too, the concentration the Hawkeyes demonstrated on a game-winning drive against Pittsburgh, the way they mauled North Texas and found ways to pull out victories against Wisconsin and Illinois.
“For me, the one moment was Northwestern,” he said of Iowa’s 40-10 road victory against a 10-win Wildcats team. “We had our backs against it. We were down personnel. Nobody gave us a chance. We didn’t know if our quarterback (C.J. Beathard) was going to play. Our quarterback didn’t know if he was going to play until Saturday morning. But we went out and we beat what history has proven to be a good football team and we beat them pretty convincingly and in a manner that we’ve done before but without some of the pieces.
“That was one of those moments where we had a group of guys who got on the bus and decided we were going to go win the football game. Don’t worry about any of the other stuff going on. We’re going to go find a way to win this football game. Defense was lights out. We ran the ball. Quarterback played well enough. That would be the defining moment for me.”
Others inside the Iowa camp offered a variety of answers to the same question.
Junior cornerback Desmond King
“As the season ended last year after the TaxSlayer Bowl, going into January, I felt like we had a bond together – everyone on the team. There were more leaders that emerged. As we went into camp (and finished) camp, I feel like that’s when we had a chance to go undefeated. I felt like we had this team a long time ago back in January. We all believed in each other and we all played together.”
Junior receiver Matt VandeBerg
“I’m going to take you all the way back to summer workouts. We’ve been working since January, as soon as C.J. got the job, that’s when he took over the leadership role and we understood as a team collectively that we could do something special. Going through spring ball, we played really well and then in summer workouts, guys started to have more accountability for what they were doing. Nobody was messing up, and if they did, they took accountability for it and we moved on from it. Once we started collectively coming together as a team in summer workouts, that’s when we knew we had something special as a team.”
Sophomore offensive tackle Boone Myers
“I knew we had a good team way back in spring ball just with the way we were jelling. We weren’t there yet, but we were clicking and we were starting to feel things out. I guess the key moment would probably be the Iowa State game when we turned it on in the fourth quarter and came together as a team. From then on, that’s how we’ve played. We were together and everyone had each other’s backs.”
In a special Hawk Central Rose Bowl video, Scott Siepker shares the story of Hawkerella, " a scrappy team that was known to work hard all day" and their fairytale 12-1 season that culminates in the Jan. 1, 2016, Rose Bowl. Rodney White/The Register with Scott Siepker
Junior defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson
“We knew it way back in camp. Our team chemistry has been great. Everyone gets along, we play really well together and we brought that into the season. The team bond, we knew during camp that it was great. We all stuck together. Before this year, there were some guys who wanted to do their own thing. My freshman year – and even coaches have said this – there were some guys who wanted to do their own thing and they weren’t really with the team. This year, guys bought into what the coaches were saying and we stuck together through everything. We didn’t know how big, but we knew something good was going to happen. Our goal was to go undefeated.”
Senior receiver Tevaun Smith
“The Wisconsin game, I wasn’t a part of it (due to injury), I wasn’t there, but just watching it you could tell. That was a significant game that needed to be won. Being a fan that day – I was at home when they were at Wisconsin – and when I was looking at that game, they were really fighting until the end. They worked their butts off that whole game. You could see that every second of that game. That was a significant moment.”
Senior offensive lineman Austin Blythe
“That stretch of games – Wisconsin, Illinois and Northwestern – was really big for us as a team and really showed us what we could do playing as a team and playing for each other. Going into the Northwestern game, we had some question marks injury-wise, we had some guys go down and we needed some other guys to step up and they certainly did. We played a really good game and that opened our eyes to what we could do if we kept playing.”
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz
“I think every step’s been important for us. The biggest story of our team, they’ve worked hard and had a good attitude going back to January. But I think the biggest story is our leadership, just the way it’s emerged during the course of the season. I think that started during camp, maybe even before during summer conditioning. But as the season’s gone on, they’ve continued to ramp it up. We’ve gotten great leadership, not only from our seniors but a lot of underclassmen as well.
“If there’s one moment I really have to point to, it’s probably the game at Northwestern where we had a lot of injuries … and then Jordan Canzeri went down early in the game. I thought we went into that game a little thin. Then when Jordan went down, that was not reassuring.
“But one thing these guys have done all season is they’ve responded. So it’s going to get a little tough, but they’ll find a way to do something special. They’ve certainly been doing that all season long.”