Leistikow: Winning bowl game, not where it is, matters most for Hawkeyes
IOWA CITY, Ia. — “Iowa” was trending on Twitter for good chunks of Sunday.
The Hawkeyes were getting national credit — or blame, for those who saw it that way — for knocking Big Ten Conference champion Ohio State out of the College Football Playoff.
“They just came up short at Kinnick,” running back Akrum Wadley grinned.
Yeah, just a little bit.
That 55-24 Buckeyes beatdown on Nov. 4 remains the signature win for an up-and-down Iowa football season to date.
But on Sunday afternoon, after accepting an invitation to play in the Dec. 27 Pinstripe Bowl against Boston College, one constant message prevailed from Hawkeye players.
This 7-5 season has unfinished business.
And for seniors, their careers do, too.
“We’ve never won a bowl game here,” defensive tackle Nathan Bazata said. “We don’t know what that feeling is like.”
One of the main reasons Wadley returned for his fifth season at Iowa, rather than turn pro, was to have a chance at an elusive bowl win. Fifth-year seniors like he and Bazata are 0-for-4.
“That’s the most important thing I’m thinking about,” Wadley said.
Ben Niemann, a senior outside linebacker, noted the Iowa bowl-win drought that has reached seven years has “kind of been eating at us. It’s a great opportunity. That’s where all of our focus is right now.”
Sure, the Pinstripe bid may have been a letdown for the sizable portion of the Hawkeye fan base that hoped to hop in the car and head to Nashville for the Music City Bowl.
But talking with players Sunday was a reminder that the football — not the location — is what matters.
They don’t care where they go (well, except for maybe for Wadley — a Newark, New Jersey, native who was beaming about the chance to play near home for his final game).
Senior offensive lineman Sean Welsh had so little urgency to know that he was deer hunting all day Sunday and didn't find out Iowa’s bowl destination until he was on his way back to Iowa City for interview obligations.
The bowl streak has certainly been brought up with head coach Kirk Ferentz. It's a perplexing run that hasn’t just been filled with losses, but flops.
In the 2011 Insight Bowl, Iowa fell behind 21-0 to Oklahoma.
In the 2014 Outback, it was 14-0 LSU at halftime.
In the 2015 TaxSlayer, it was 28-0 Tennessee.
In the 2016 Rose, it was (gulp) 38-0 Stanford.
In the 2017 Outback, the Hawkeyes lost to Florida, 30-3.
It’s an odd trend for a team that plays so many close games, and it’s one that will be the primary narrative over the next 3½ weeks.
There's only one way to change it. Win.
“I've got to tell you, I don't feel any different than I have any year,” Ferentz said when asked about the importance of this game. “There's never been a bowl that we haven't tried to win. I can't think of any games that we haven't tried to win.”
The preparation, though, will be a unique challenge to Ferentz.
This is the earliest bowl date of 15 in the Ferentz era, and it’s the earliest in the program since the Dec. 26, 1984, Freedom Bowl. The game takes place just 1½ weeks after final exams.
So Iowa is tightening its time in the Big Apple. The team won’t leave Iowa City until Dec. 24, just three days prior to the game at Yankee Stadium.
They left eight days early in 2015 for the Rose Bowl; seven days ahead of last year’s Outback.
“We'll try to treat this a little bit more like a business trip, if you will,” Ferentz said. “Try to get as much of our preparation done here, where we have the friendly confines and convenience (of the Iowa Football Performance Center).”
There’s one other difference in this year’s bowl prep, too: The Hawkeyes aren’t facing a name-brand school like they have in each of the past five bowl losses.
Boston College (7-5) won’t be a pushover. It's got some nice wins and comes into this matchup on a hot streak. But this is a beatable opponent.
This matchup offers a chance to remember this Hawkeye season for more than helping Alabama into the playoffs while keeping Ohio State out.
Fans and players can agree: A bowl win Dec. 27, and everyone’s going to be a lot happier.
“We’ve been to four bowl games (as seniors) that we really haven’t gotten the result we wanted,” Welsh said. “And I think it’s time to push it through.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.
New Era Pinstripe Bowl
Matchup: Iowa (7-5) vs. Boston College (7-5)
When, where: Dec. 27, Bronx, N.Y.
Time, TV: 4:15 p.m. CT, ESPN
Conferences: Big Ten vs. ACC
On Boston College: The Hawkeyes and Eagles have never met. Boston College won five of its last six games, including an impressive win at Louisville (45-42) and against preseason top-five Florida State (35-3). The Eagles rank No. 69 nationally in total defense (398.1 yards per game) and No. 82 in offense (387.0).