Leistikow: Akrum Wadley-led Hawkeyes finish the frozen Pinstripe Bowl fight
NEW YORK — Akrum Wadley was flashing that signature smile, clutching the Pinstripe Bowl MVP trophy in his right hand as he spoke with reporters after a college football game for the last time.
“I know you guys are going to miss me,” he said. “… I’ll miss you guys, too.”
Wadley will probably be missed most by Hawkeye fans.
But he certainly left them with a nice present on the way out the door of his fantastic career: an end to the seven-year Iowa bowl drought.
It was a team effort, to be sure, but Wadley’s 283 all-purpose yards on a Yankee Stadium field more suited for ice hockey helped deliver a program-needed 27-20 victory against Boston College.
Wadley ran hard. Man, he ran hard. You could tell he was giving his all with every surge into a pile of Eagles defenders.
That was a message he took to heart after a pregame conversation with offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz.
“He talked about being desperate to win,” Wadley said. “That stuck with me, every time I touched the football.”
Outside of Wadley, the Hawkeyes couldn’t do much of anything on offense.
Iowa gained 200 yards from scrimmage for the game. He accounted for 56 percent of those.
For the day, Wadley touched the football 29 times — 22 rushes for 88 hard-earned yards; two catches for 24 more, including a critical 17-yarder in the fourth quarter; and five kickoff returns for an Iowa-bowl-record 171.
His dazzling 72-yard return in the first quarter, after Boston College had grabbed a 7-3 lead, helped set up the Hawkeyes’ first opening-half touchdown in a bowl game in three years.
“Special teams played a key in the victory,” said Wadley, who broke the previous kick-return mark of 169 set by C.J. Jones in the 2003 Orange Bowl. “I had blockers who believed in me.”
This was a frigid fight. It was 23 degrees at kickoff, the coldest Iowa game anywhere since the coldest game in Kinnick Stadium history — 18 degrees in 2013 against Michigan.
For a while, it looked like the Hawkeyes were going to come home after another bowl-game flop.
They were being outgained at halftime 281-56.
But somehow, they only trailed by a touchdown, at 17-10.
Back they came, almost out of nowhere, to wrest away control.
The defense that couldn't tackle AJ Dillon was swarming to the ball. The offense that couldn't throw a forward pass hit a big one, from Nate Stanley to Nick Easley for 32 yards. The defensive line that lacked pressure finally got to the quarterback.
“For our team to come out the way they did in that second half and push through it,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said, “to me, it was a breakthrough moment for us.”
An 8-5 record sure feels a lot better than 7-6. Wednesday brought the first time since the 2010 Insight Bowl — back when Ricky Stanzi and Adrian Clayborn were still Hawkeyes — that the program has ended the season with a win.
The Hawkeye fan base needed this. So did the athletic administration. And so did the players.
Ferentz got emotional as he discussed seniors such as all-American linebacker Josey Jewell all the way to walk-on Daniel Gaffey, “who just works his tail off all the time on the scout team.”
Those guys will forever get to say they ended their college careers with a W.
“I don’t think there’s a college player that doesn’t remember their last game,” said Ferentz, who in this game equaled Hayden Fry's all-time Iowa wins record of 143. “Whether it was a bowl game or that they didn’t get a chance to play in one.”
It was a finish to remember.
In a 20-all game as the clock wound under 5 minutes in the fourth quarter, Anthony Nelson's strip sack of Boston College's Darius Ward and resulting fumble recovery by Parker Hesse changed the game.
Hesse had been on the sidelines, but came into the game on the key third-and-8 play. Before he did, though, he told teammates: "Anthony’s due for a big play. He’s going to get us one."
Right on cue.
And then it was Wadley's turn. Bottled up in the run game with a long run of 10 yards to that point, the electric senior finally broke loose.
On the first snap after Hesse's recovery, Wadley scooted 27 yards to the Eagles' 18-yard line.
A 17-yard completion to walk-on tight end Nate Wieting, then a 1-yard plunge for walk-on fullback Drake Kulick ... and Iowa amazingly had a seven-point lead with 3:09 to play.
The only thing that would have been more fitting? If Wadley had gotten the touchdown. He ended up with 35 for his career, one shy of tying Tavian Banks' school record.
No biggie, Wadley said: "Nah. As long as we got the touchdown, that’s the most important thing.”
And, after Josh Jackson's eighth interception, the win.
"In Heaven There Is No Beer" in Yankee Stadium followed.
The bundled-up Hawkeye fans in attendance — and there were several thousand of them — roared. The players celebrated.
They had finished the fight.
“We had to fight for everything we got," Hesse said. "They fought, too. You’ve got to give credit to them. We were able to come out with the win. It feels really good to win that way.”
Especially for Wadley, who was playing in front of 40-some family members from his nearby hometown of Newark, New Jersey.
He finishes his Hawkeye career with 3,904 all-purpose yards. His 2,872 rushing yards rank fifth in school history.
"My whole college career, I never gave up, even though I sometimes thought about giving up," he said, smiling again. "If I would’ve gave up, none of this would have ever happened.”
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.