Iowa's bowl prep looks to quash postseason drought
IOWA CITY, Ia. — It goes back to July, when the team collectively hammered it home as a season goal. It goes back to 2013, when the current crop of seniors joined the program — unaware they’d still be hunting for postseason success. It goes back to Pasadena, Jacksonville, Tampa and Tempe, where four football campaigns sputtered to a halt.
And ultimately, it goes back to 2010, the last time it happened, the last time a black-and-gold class went out on top, the last time an Iowa season ended victorious.
The last time the Hawkeyes secured a bowl win.
“It's positive that they are thinking about it,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “They are aware of it.”
Now, they want to end it.
That chance comes Monday, when the No. 25 Hawkeyes (8-4) tackle 18th-ranked Florida (8-4) in the Outback Bowl at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium. Iowa is searching for its first postseason victory since Dec. 28, 2010, when it upended Missouri in the Insight Bowl.
It’s hard to find a common thread among the Hawkeyes’ four straight bowl losses. They’ve entered bowls with a chance of a lifetime (2015), with little going right (2014), with momentum (2013) and with a top player suspended (2011).
Nothing has stuck.
“We set this as one of our goals at the beginning of the year — to win a bowl game,” running back LeShun Daniels said, “Obviously, no one on the team has done it.
“And I feel like everybody has been invested, and everybody’s kind of doing whatever they can preparation-wise.”
Bowl prep can unfold in several fashions, and the Hawkeyes have toyed with theirs in a number of ways during this postseason drought. A look at what remains prevalent this season as Iowa takes another crack at ending its bowl-season woes.
Time management remains paramount
Immediately following the bowl announcement, it becomes all the more imperative.
The Hawkeyes’ academic grind instantly gained steam after receiving their Tampa ticket on Dec. 4, with the last week of classes running Dec. 5-9 and finals stretching Dec. 12-16. Iowa practiced minimally during that 12-day span, as Ferentz, per usual, likes to “keep our hands off the players” while they close out the semester.
Practice regularly resumed the night of the 16th, but the need for time management only grows during the academic reprieve. Although grueling at times, the school-football balance keeps some players, particularly younger ones, in a beneficial routine.
How one handles that disruption can reveal a lot.
“It was easier when school was going on because you had a one-track mind,” defensive tackle Nathan Bazata said. “It was football and pretty much schoolwork, and that was it. And then, you’d come in for film, sleep and do it again.
“So having time off, (players) have more time to screw off and do what they want — maybe play games or something like that — when they probably should be looking at the opponent.”
Ah, yes, the film room. A year-round football staple regardless, but especially crucial during bowl prep considering the foe’s unfamiliarity.
“This is the time,” linebacker Josey Jewell said, “when you can get really far ahead on the game film and understanding the other team’s offense, in (my) case for a defensive player. So really just putting your nose in the book and trying to understand them in the best way you possibly can with all your time that you have.”
Added Daniels: “You’ve still got to put time in the film room — you can’t slack off on that. You can’t be playing too many video games or staying up late at night.”
For a Division I football player, the importance of time management isn’t exactly a revelation. It’s relentlessly preached all season from a number of voices, and success is difficult to uncover without it.
But during a bowl prep — when players suddenly have more free time than they’ve sniffed in months — maintaining one’s regular-season routine as close as possible could certainly have an impact come game time.
At least one tangible difference lies in this year’s travel itinerary.
In six of its last seven bowl preps — including the previous five — Iowa has left for its postseason destination eight days before kickoff. And the one instance it didn’t in that timeframe was the 2009 season, when the Hawkeyes departed nine days prior to the Jan. 5, 2010, Orange Bowl.
This time, Ferentz trimmed those figures down.
Iowa’s Monday touchdown in Tampa — exactly one week before the Outback Bowl — marked the program’s latest arrival for a bowl game since the 2006 campaign, when the Hawkeyes also checked into San Antonio seven days before the Dec. 30 Alamo Bowl.
And had Ferentz had his way, Iowa would’ve arrived in Florida even later.
“It was required that we go down Monday,” the Hawkeyes coach said last week. “Otherwise, we probably would have traveled Tuesday. That would have been our other plan.
“I don’t think it's going to affect the game — I know it's not going to — but that's what we would have done. So we would have stayed even one more day here and just kind of functioned in our home environment.”
As Ferentz put it, the bowl prep was adjusted to a more "Iowa-City centered” approach, designed to maximize the Hawkeyes’ in-house resources and eliminate as many Tampa distractions as possible.
The sparkling $55 million Stew and LeNore Hansen Football Performance Center allowed Iowa to adequately conduct its initial practice work in familiar territory, all without needing the weather bump that comes with venturing south. Additionally, slicing down the Florida time helps put “a lid on things” as far as late-night activities are concerned — Ferentz said Monday would be the only night with a team curfew extended past 11 p.m.
“We're going to treat it like we're in-season, basically,” he said. “… After (that first night), it's going to be a little tighter.”
Although the Hawkeyes’ bowl-site stay isn’t drastically shorter than past years, the minor tinkering could help keep Iowa flowing as it looks to replicate its end-of-season success.
“The last couple years, it kind of felt like we were down (at our bowl sites) almost too long,” Bazata said. “So after a few days, you get to a certain point where you just want to play the game.
“And I think mainly the distractions that are down there too. We’ve been there before, so we kind of know what it’s all about. And I think coaches just don’t want us having too much fun and just focus on the game more.”
Balancing self-work and opponent work
With three weeks between Iowa’s regular-season finale romp over Nebraska (Nov. 25) and the full-time return of practice after finals (Dec. 16), an overall readjustment period was understandably needed.
It’s part of bowl season. Every team faces it.
The length, though, can certainly vary.
During last year’s Rose Bowl buildup, Ferentz recounted how, after a late-season skid, his 2014 team needed substantial time to “get right again”, thus honing in more on itself heading into the TaxSlayer Bowl matchup versus Tennessee.
No dice. After crumbling under division title aspirations and dropping three of its last four regular-season games, that Iowa squad hobbled down to Jacksonville for a 45-28 UT shellacking.
Ferentz’s recollection, at the time, was used to contrast his 2015 unit, which had emphatically resurrected the Iowa football culture and was amped up for a Rose Bowl showdown despite being bounced from the College Football Playoff picture a few weeks earlier. The objectives, he said, were “totally different” than the season before.
But the bowl result wasn’t — a 45-16 Stanford demolition.
Which brings us to this season.
After some initial “heavy work” geared toward sharpening fundamentals and aiding the younger, more inexperienced players, Iowa flipped to the Gators beginning last Thursday, initiating step two of Ferentz’s three-phase prep. The final two portions are both game-week simulations — one of which occurred in Iowa City; the other is already underway in Tampa.
“I think this year’s really going to help,” Bazata said, “just spending an extra week on our opponent.”
The Hawkeyes have already entered “November mode” in a sense, where practices are shorter and more dialed in on specific areas. Iowa’s November was largely productive.
Similar results on Jan. 2 would be more than welcomed.
“We want to finish strong,” Jewell said. “We want to end with a bang.”
Dargan Southard covers preps, recruiting Iowa and UNI athletics for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, The Des Moines Register and HawkCentral.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.