10 moments that defined Iowa's season
TAMPA, Fla. — Fairly or not, the last impression a team makes is often the most lasting.
For the 2016 Iowa Hawkeyes football squad, it was another tortured exit after another desultory January bowl game appearance.
No. 18 Florida punished Iowa for every mistake Monday and romped to a 30-3 victory in the Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium. It left the Hawkeyes with an 8-5 record, again facing an offseason of soul-searching after a fifth consecutive bowl defeat.
“There’s a few plays here and there that changed the game drastically, and once those happened we couldn’t get out from under the bus,” Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard said after a three-interception fourth quarter that was a lowlight of a career that also produced 21 victories.
MORE OUTBACK BOWL COVERAGE:
- Leistikow: Offensive change needed after latest bowl dud
- Analysis: Hawkeyes couldn't afford defensive lapses
- Ferentz: Coaches 'owed it to' injured Beathard to keep him in game
- Go pro or no? Wadley weighs NFL decision
- Desmond King reflects on legendary Iowa career
Gone was the elation of a three-game winning streak to end the regular season for the Hawkeyes. In its place was a painful reminder of the team’s previous 27-point defeat, at the hands of Penn State on Nov. 5.
Those losses will be forever a part of this team’s permanent record. But so will some stirring victories over its biggest rivals, and one grand upset with the eyes of the college football world trained on Kinnick Stadium.
Here are 10 moments that defined Iowa’s season:
A bargain with the Bison
You actually have to flash back to September 2011 to find one of the key decisions for the 2016 season. It was then that Iowa athletic director Gary Barta agreed to send $500,000 to his alma mater, North Dakota State, to secure what appeared to be an innocent non-conference home game against an overmatched FCS foe.
This transaction occurred one year after the Bison had beaten Kansas and in the same month that they handled Minnesota. By the time their date with the Hawkeyes rolled around, NDSU had also vanquished Colorado State, Kansas State and Iowa State, won five consecutive FCS national titles and was no longer welcome in most FBS stadiums.
The athletic director who talked Barta into playing the game — Gene Taylor — was now an assistant on Barta’s staff, hired away in 2014.
"I told him, 'Look, if you're not going to give a ton of cash personally to your alma mater, at least give us a guarantee check,'" Taylor recalled of that 2011 discussion with Barta in an article for the UIowa website.
Barta and Taylor would come to regret it. The Bison, poised by years of competition in large stadiums, outplayed Iowa throughout the fourth quarter of a 23-21 upset in Week 3. It snapped a nine-game winning streak at Kinnick and punctured the aura of a Hawkeye team coming off a 12-0 regular season and positioned to repeat as Big Ten West champions.
An August decision
A veteran Iowa team entered August training camp with few questions about starting spots. But a big one was at weakside linebacker. Sophomore Aaron Mends had seemed to earn the job in spring practices, but a onetime starter on the strong side impressed the coaches with his persistence.
By the end of the month, it was junior Bo Bower who was joining Josey Jewell and Ben Niemann in the starting unit. Bower had started on the opposite side as a freshman but lost that spot to Niemann in 2015.
“His preparation is very good. I think he’s very tough, he’s a very physical guy. He’s improved his footwork,” Hawkeyes defensive coordinator Phil Parker said of Bower. “What we saw was his dedication to come out every day and go to work.”
With Bower in place, Iowa had a trio of linebackers it would lean on almost exclusively throughout the year. Jewell remains the clear star of the group, but Bower grew into his role as the season progressed, coming up with 91 tackles and four pass breakups.
Of most importance, though, is that all three players will return as senior incumbents, giving the Hawkeyes an experienced group at a vital position.
Five more years
Cy-Hawk week dawned with a news flash out of the Hawkeye athletic department. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz had signed another contract extension, this one totaling $49.5 million over 10 years and taking him through the 2025 season.
It was a reward for the Hawkeyes’ 12-2 2015 campaign and Rose Bowl appearance. It was also another signal that Barta values continuity and wants Ferentz to retire as a Hawkeye. The 17-year head coach will be 70 when the contract expires.
But the contract, with its favorable buyout terms for Ferentz, inevitably became a lightning rod for a contingent of the Iowa fan base, particularly whenever the team suffered a loss.
Barta defended the length and terms of the deal.
“That’s a fair question,” he told reporters when reminded of the fan backlash against the buyout terms in Ferentz’s previous contract extension, in 2010. “But I get negative attention no matter what I do.”
Storming the Cyclones
The negative attention was kept at bay for at least one week when Iowa promptly dominated Iowa State 42-3 that Saturday under the lights at Kinnick. Beathard passed for 235 yards and three touchdowns and ran for another score — all before halftime.
The victory enabled Iowa to retain the Cy-Hawk Trophy for a second consecutive year and ran its record to 2-0.
Beathard showed a mastery of the Hawkeye offense that was never really seen again. But on that night, there were nothing but smiles from the Iowa contingent.
“I don’t know if you guys even get to see a real fraction of what he does for us as far as a leadership role and knowing what play to put us in,” wide receiver Matt VandeBerg said of Beathard afterward. “There are times where we go out on the field, we just call a formation and then he puts us in the right play because he knows his football.”
Breaking the wrong way
That was before the NDSU loss. Before a rocky outing and an alarmingly narrow 14-7 win at lowly Rutgers.
And then the Hawkeyes got some really bad news. VandeBerg broke his foot in practice two days after the victory at Rutgers.
Suddenly, Beathard’s most trusted target was gone. VandeBerg had 19 catches for 284 yards and three touchdowns in the first four games.
“This is hardly a crisis stage,” Ferentz told reporters after revealing the VandeBerg injury. “We're all really sorry that Matt got hurt, don't get me wrong, I'm not minimizing that. But hey, we're going to play. We've got to play.”
But no Hawkeye ever filled that void, and the passing game all but disappeared. In the Outback Bowl, Iowa managed only 55 yards through the air. There was one completion to a wide receiver — an 11-yarder to Riley McCarron.
The good news for Iowa is that VandeBerg was granted a medical redshirt and will return to the team this season.
The bad news is Beathard, McCarron and top tight end George Kittle have all graduated.
Wadley to the rescue
In the absence of a passing game, Iowa was able to rely on its “AkShun” running duo. Junior Akrum Wadley and senior LeShun Daniels Jr. made Hawkeye history by each eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark for the season.
It was the dynamic Wadley who repeatedly provided the “wow” moments. He led Iowa with 13 touchdowns, none more important than the 54-yarder he sprung on Minnesota in the fourth quarter of a Week 6 slog.
The Hawkeyes had a 3-2 record and were trailing 7-6 at the time, in danger of letting a game slip away despite having every statistical advantage.
Wadley changed that with one dazzling dash down the Iowa sideline, freed by a sequence of textbook blocking.
“We just kept grinding,” said Wadley, who gained 107 yards in the game. “Sooner or later, if they slip up, it will be a long one. Either me or LeShun was going to hit it, and I was the one that got it.”
It ended up being Iowa’s only significant road victory of the season. More important, it kept that season alive.
Down in the Valley
Iowa entered its bye week with a 5-3 record and a chance to earn some rest entering the grinder of November. Little did the Hawkeyes know that their season was about to take its two sharpest turns.
Iowa turned in its worst performance of the season — and perhaps a decade — in falling flat on its face during a 41-14 wipeout at Penn State.
Nittany Lions tailback Saquon Barkley torched the Hawkeyes for 211 yards and two touchdowns. What he said afterward really burned.
“You can see in their demeanor when they don’t want to be on the field no more,” Barkley said of the Hawkeyes.
The quote ricocheted around the internet and clearly hit home with at least some Iowa players. Stung by the accusation that they had quit, the Hawkeyes were about to do anything but.
Safety first, bedlam last
No. 2 Michigan was next on the docket, a nationally televised night game at Kinnick that seemed to be the worst possible opponent at the worst possible time.
Sure enough, the Wolverines methodically built a 10-0 lead and another Hawkeye loss appeared inevitable.
Then Iowa punter Ron Coluzzi somehow spun a 54-yard punt to rest on the Michigan 2-yard line. Two plays later, defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson charged through the line to drop Michigan running back De’Veon Smith for a safety. Iowa was on the board. Iowa was inspired.
Freshman kicker Keith Duncan completed the comeback in a 14-13 shocker with a 33-yard field goal as the clock hit zero and tens of thousands of fans descended on the delirious players.
It was Johnson — the linchpin of an Iowa defense that held Michigan to 201 yards — that made the scene possible.
“We knew they were like the big dogs. We just made up our mind to come after them aggressively,” Johnson said.
“It’s just about having belief. You can’t really hang your head. We just kept our heads up high. We just kept playing.”
A receiver in the clear
After a shutout of Illinois, the Hawkeyes returned to Kinnick to wrap up the regular season against rival Nebraska. It shaped up to be a close affair on Black Friday. The Hawkeyes had other ideas, letting loose with a series of big plays in a 40-10 rout.
No play was more devastating to the Cornhuskers than the Hawkeyes’ second touchdown. Beathard and McCarron showed that there was a little more life in the passing game yet, turning a quick slant pass into a 77-yard touchdown. McCarron showed surprising breakaway speed to leave the Nebraska defenders grasping at air.
“It was a game-plan play we had been working on,” McCarron said. “We thought we could catch them with some quick play-action, quick pass and really just split the middle of the field. It worked out perfectly, obviously.”
That sent Iowa to a No. 25 ranking and an Outback Bowl date with the Gators, champions of the SEC East.
Florida entered the game as slight favorites but reeling from injuries. All three starting linebackers missed the game.
It hardly mattered.
The Gators showed off their superior depth by tapping into players who had barely contributed during the season. Third-string tailback Mark Thompson — suspended earlier in the year after a marijuana arrest — emerged from the doghouse with an 85-yard touchdown on a screen pass to give Florida a 10-3 lead. He had three receptions for 20 yards entering play.
Cristian Garcia, a onetime video assistant who became a walk-on linebacker, got his first start in the middle of the Florida defense and looked like a natural, coming up with five tackles to aid in the throttling. His season’s output before facing Iowa? Two tackles.
It was that kind of afternoon for a Hawkeye team that could locate no such answers on its relatively healthy roster.
And so begins another offseason filled with questions for Ferentz and his team.
“We’ll take time and think about it and talk about it … get feedback from our players, feedback from the staff,” Ferentz said.
“As I stand here today, I feel really good about the way we went about things. I think we had a good plan and just came up short against a good football team.”