LOS ANGELES – For eight months, Iowa plowed through the behind-the-scenes portion of the college football year with the type of commitment, mindset and unity necessary to change the fortunes of a dissatisfied program.
For 12 more weeks, the Hawkeyes backed up that work on the game field, muscling their way alongside national heavyweight programs before Michigan State and Stanford exposed cracks that Iowa still needs to address.
The Hawkeyes no longer have the sting of 7-6 to prod them through the winter, spring and summer months like it did a year ago. A school-record 12 victories – coupled with a cast of key returning starters – will push Iowa into a crowd of clubs expected to contend for conference championships and playoff spots.
This is slippery terrain for Iowa football, which seems to climb best during times when the outside world sees the Hawkeyes facing an uphill struggle.
“That, to me, is the concern for next year,” said Anthony Herron, who played on Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz’s first team and works now as a Pac-12 Networks studio host. “There shouldn’t be any doubt they’ll be ranked really high and there’ll be big expectations. How they handle that between now and then is the hard part.”
A football team’s DNA changes each season as leaders graduate and new players emerge. The Hawkeyes have quarterback C.J. Beathard and potentially eight starters on defense coming back, but offensive line stalwarts Austin Blythe and Jordan Walsh and secondary anchor Jordan Lomax have exhausted their eligibility.
Even the slightest roster turnover can derail a team’s makeup. So how do the Hawkeyes maintain the positive vibe they established during the winter months a year ago?
“That’s going to be the trick,” Iowa offensive line coach Brian Ferentz said. “We worried about that a little bit at the beginning of bowl prep, just spending some time without our older guys on the field to try to continue that.”
The bigger test, though, starts later this month when the Hawkeyes return to campus and begin offseason workouts. It’s the point last year when Iowa players identified what needed to be changed and followed through on it.
“To me, the hardest part is not the decision – anybody can decide to do something,” Ferentz said. “What was special about this football team is they made a commitment to do it and then they honored that commitment, they were loyal to that commitment for 12 months, which is hard. We’re finding it’s harder and harder to get young people to do that. I think that’s going to be the trick and we won’t take anything for granted, but it’s going to come down to our players.”
“We know what made Iowa football the way it was this season,” receiver Matt VandeBerg said. “As long as we stay true to those principles, I think we’ll be able to come back ready to go.”
Ben Niemann and Matt VandeBerg express disappointment but find positives after a 45-16 Rose Bowl loss to Stanford.
The Hawkeyes won’t need to search for something to spur them through the winter months. Stanford took care of that Friday by throttling Iowa 45-16 in the Rose Bowl, a game that should lessen concerns about offseason overconfidence.
“It’ll be easier to come back from it just because of how we finished our last two games of the year,” running back LeShun Daniels said. “Obviously, (the Rose Bowl) was disappointing with the way we performed. … We’ve got to use that fire for next year, so the people who are coming back and the leaders who are coming back, we don’t allow this to happen again, so next year we can have an even more successful season than this one.”