Iowa, Florida look for a happier start to the New Year

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

TAMPA, Fla. — The Iowa and Florida football teams spent New Year’s Day 2016 on opposite sides of the continent but shared a humiliation:

Both were blown out in bowl games witnessed by millions.

On Monday, 366 days later, the Hawkeyes and Gators will be looking for 180-degree turnarounds in the Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium (noon, ABC).

Akrum Wadley and his Iowa teammates had a rough outing in last year's Rose Bowl against Stanford. The Hawkeyes are intent on having a better showing Monday against Florida in the Outback Bowl.

“We haven’t won a bowl game in a while, so that’s on our calendar — that’s on our early-season goal list that we thought about, as an overall plan,” Hawkeyes junior linebacker Josey Jewell said of his program’s six-year drought. “So that’s the thing that we’re focused on right now — we need to understand what it takes to be able to go in there and change the outcome that it’s been in the past years.”

Last year, it was Stanford 45, Iowa 16 in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. And even that score is kind to the Hawkeyes. Stanford led 35-0 at halftime en route to 429 yards of offense.

Florida, meanwhile, was being flayed by Michigan in the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Fla. The Wolverines ran up 503 yards in a 41-7 victory.

Eight players who started that debacle for Florida are expected to do so again Monday. Nine Hawkeye starters are back in the lineup from last year’s bitter conclusion to a 12-2 season.

At stake is a football game, but also a measure of pride for all involved — no one on either side wants to experience the pain of a year ago.

For No. 25 Iowa (8-4), there’s also the matter of snapping a four-bowl losing streak. That thought is never far from the minds of the upperclassmen in particular.

“We’re going to try to finish strong this year, unlike the other three years I’ve been here,” said Jewell, Iowa’s leading tackler, with 114.

“It’s just something to think about — something we have in the back of our head, understanding we haven’t been able to do it.”

No. 18 Florida (8-4) will be playing in its 43rd bowl game. The Gators are 21-21 in previous appearances but are coming off the second-worst loss in the history of the proud Southeastern Conference program.

Florida coach Jim McElwain, in his second year at the helm, has been outspoken about his disappointment in how last year’s team flopped at the finish line. He has repeatedly spoken about players looking for “participation ribbons” instead of actually competing against Michigan.

This year?

“We talked about your opportunity to be proud of what you put on film. And no matter what you're striving for, any time you're on film, you're being evaluated — whether you're a young guy going into next year, whether you're an older guy that's going on to the next level. Here's the opportunity for you to prove yourself,” said McElwain, who has several projected NFL Draft picks on his defense.

Neither team has distinguished itself offensively this season. Florida is a 2.5-point favorite in what is expected to be a low-scoring affair.

The Gators are planning on starting a quarterback that is familiar to Iowa. Austin Appleby played his first three seasons at Purdue, making his first career start against the Hawkeyes. Last season, Iowa beat Purdue 40-20, but Appleby went 23 of 40 for 259 yards and a touchdown, with no interceptions.

That prompted this amusing exchange between Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz and McElwain last week.

“I’m not real enthusiastic about seeing him again,” Ferentz told reporters. “It’s not like we have a great memory from last year’s game, unfortunately.”

“We put that game plan in,” McElwain interjected.

Ferentz dead-panned: “I’ll tell Phil.”

That would be Phil Parker, Iowa’s defensive coordinator, who also has to prepare to face sophomore quarterback Luke Del Rio. Del Rio played in six games while Appleby was injured this season, throwing for 1,358 yards and eight touchdowns. Appleby has 1,225 yards and eight more scores.

It is likely that both will play Monday for a young Florida offense that has been beset by injuries. Only left tackle David Sharpe was able to start all 13 games on offense for the Gators.

“I don’t know if frustration’s the word,” Florida offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said of his sluggish group. “You see (success) in stretches. It’s the consistency.

“'Welcome to the big leagues,' as they say. You wake up in this league every day, you’d better bring your best.”

Ferentz’s team is playing its best football of the season, having won three consecutive games, including home victories over ranked teams in Michigan and Nebraska. That’s heartening, but Ferentz is bringing the Hawkeyes to a bowl game for the 14th time in his 17 seasons as head coach seeking just his seventh bowl victory. He knows the entire season won’t be defined by Monday’s result, but it will leave a lasting impression.

“That's all you can do as a coach — just hope your guys are wired in; they're working hard; they're focused when they need to be focused and handling the things that are important,” Ferentz said.

“The one commonality is that it's a unique circumstance, and you're usually playing somebody that's really good. You know, we could go out and play a great game and get beat — that's the reality when you play in January bowls.”

A great game is what both coaches are hoping to see after the disappointment of a year ago. Now it’s up to the players to do their part.