Hawkeyes' strong finish nets a January bowl

Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

IOWA CITY, Ia. — LeShun Daniels Jr. never doubted that a day like Sunday would come, even when his Iowa football team was unexpectedly staring at a 5-4 record a month ago.

Three resounding wins later, the Hawkeyes woke up to a snowstorm and word that they will be ringing in the New Year in Tampa, Fla.

Iowa was selected for its fifth appearance in the Outback Bowl on Sunday, and will face Florida in the noon game on Jan. 2. It will be broadcast by ABC.

“We had in our mind that we were going to get this done, that we were going to make it to a bowl game, that we were going to make it to a quality bowl game, and that’s what we did,” said Daniels, a senior tailback who eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark in Iowa’s last game, a 40-10 whipping of Nebraska on Nov. 25.

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It was that victory that made a deep impression on Outback Bowl President Jim McVay. He called Iowa athletic director Gary Barta on Sunday afternoon to extend the invitation, passing on a chance to host the Cornhuskers for the first time.

“They finished strong, beating Michigan, just took Nebraska apart, and that makes a difference,” McVay said of the Hawkeyes. “It just feels like the team is peaking. Those are the kinds of teams that deserve a big trip to Florida.

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“It’s a bunch of tough guys that will slug it out, that look like they love football. It just seems like this is a matchup that people are going to really like. And Hawkeye fans are the best. They just are. They enjoy Florida. They wear the merchandise. They’re up and down the beaches, at all the events.”

Daniels, like all current Iowa players, is seeking a first bowl-game victory. But he also plans to make time to soak up the sun with those Hawkeye fans. Iowa has a ticket allotment of 8,500, and typically brings more than that number of faithful followers to warm-weather bowl games.

“It’s kind of like a vacation. It’s almost like an award for all the hard work that you’ve done throughout the entire year,” Daniels said. “You’re usually in a nice location and you get to go out and kick it with your teammates.”

How to get to the Outback Bowl with the Hawkeyes

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz is bringing a team to a bowl game for the 14th time in his 18 seasons. But his team has lost its last four bowls and so this year he said he’ll bring them to town a day later than in years past. That will give them one more day to practice in their new on-campus facility.

“They want to go down and play well,” Ferentz said of his players. “We’re going to shorten the trip down, make it more like a business trip or a Super Bowl if you will.”

Iowa has previously appeared in the 2004, 2006, 2009 and 2014 Outback Bowls, winning twice and losing twice.  Ferentz said his team’s strong November kick allowed it to reach Tampa for a fifth time.

Iowa's Kevin Ward celebrates after tackling Nebraska's De'Mornay Pierson-El during their game at Kinnick Stadium on Friday, Nov. 25, 2016.

“If you have success on the field, it just gives you more opportunities in all regards,” Ferentz said. “Going to a bowl is very special for anybody who competes as a college athlete. Every win, you typically get a better venue.”

Iowa is ranked 25th and Florida 18th. Both teams are 8-4.

While Iowa is riding a three-game winning streak, Florida enters the Outback Bowl having lost to Florida State and Alabama by a combined 56 points the past two weeks. Jim McElwain’s team also lost in the Citrus Bowl last January 41-7 against Michigan.

The second-year Gators coach met with his team Sunday morning, a day after that 54-16 blowout at the hands of No. 1 Alabama in the Southeastern Conference championship game, and informed the players that their bowl destination was going to be Tampa. He said the mood was upbeat, in contrast to last year, when he felt that some of his players were just looking for a “participation ribbon” in the bowl game.

“They’ve heard great things about the bowl there and obviously playing a team that’s on a roll now,” McElwain said. “And that’s a good thing.”

It also will be Florida’s fifth appearance in the Outback Bowl and the third against Iowa. The Hawkeyes won 37-17 in 2004 and lost 31-24 in 2006.

That makes the Jan. 2 meeting a rubber match of sorts. Hawkeyes senior cornerback Desmond King is determined to help his team secure a victory.

“None of us in this class or on this team has won a bowl game,” said King, who played in Iowa’s 21-14 loss to LSU in the Outback Bowl three years ago. “So we get this opportunity to go down there, head back to Tampa, and kind of change what’s been going on.”

It will be the 10th time the Hawkeyes will be playing in a January bowl game in Ferentz’s tenure. That fact wasn’t lost on Daniels.

“You know that January bowl games are always big-time bowl games and you know you’re always going to be playing against a good opponent and that everyone’s going to be watching,” he said. “You’ve got to make sure that you’re ready to go out there and compete.”

Iowa hasn't won a bowl game since defeating Missouri in the 2010 Insight Bowl. Iowa has posted a 6-7 bowl record under Ferentz, including wins in four January bowl games.

This year’s team took a circuitous trip to its ultimate destination, losing three consecutive home games before regrouping and knocking off Michigan and shellacking Nebraska, both of which were ranked.

“We’re probably not the prettiest car in the lot,” Ferentz conceded. “But we got to the finish line."

Iowa’s bowl results under coach Kirk Ferentz

Alamo Bowl, Dec. 29, 2001

Iowa 19, Texas Tech 16

Orange Bowl, Jan. 2, 2003

USC 38, Iowa 17

Outback Bowl, Jan. 1, 2004

Iowa 37, Florida 17

Capital One Bowl, Jan. 1, 2005

Iowa 30, LSU 25

Outback Bowl, Jan. 2, 2006

Florida 31, Iowa 24

Alamo Bowl, Dec. 30, 2006

Texas 26, Iowa 24

Outback Bowl, Jan. 1, 2009

Iowa 31, South Carolina 10

Orange Bowl, Jan. 5, 2010

Iowa 24, Georgia Tech 14

Insight Bowl, Dec. 28, 2010

Iowa 27, Missouri 24

Insight Bowl, Dec. 30, 2011

Oklahoma 31, Iowa 14

Outback Bowl, Jan. 1, 2014

LSU 21, Iowa 14

TaxSlayer Bowl, Jan. 2, 2015

Tennessee 45, Iowa 28

Rose Bowl, Jan. 1, 2016

Stanford 45, Iowa 16