IOWA CITY, Ia. — A.J. Epenesa and Tristan Wirfs may have the NFL in their immediate futures, but the Hawkeye junior stars never thought about skipping their team's bowl game.
"You make it through the whole season with your teammates, with your brothers. I haven't decided if I'm staying or leaving," Epenesa said Sunday. "I'm just going, and playing for the guys with me."
No. 19 Iowa (9-3) was selected to play in the Holiday Bowl for the first time in 28 years earlier Sunday. The opponent is No. 23 USC (8-4) at 7 p.m. Dec. 27 in SDCCU Stadium in San Diego. It will be televised on FS1.
Epenesa is a defensive end. Wirfs is an offensive tackle. Both were first team all-Big Ten Conference selections. Both also are frequently projected as first-round NFL Draft picks if they leave school a year early.
In a similar situation a year ago, tight end T.J. Hockenson opted to play in the Outback Bowl before leaving for the NFL with two years of eligibility remaining. Tight end Noah Fant skipped the bowl to get ready for the NFL Scouting Combine. Both were first-round draft picks.
Wirfs, like Epenesa, said it was an easy decision for him to play against USC, perhaps for the final time in a Hawkeye uniform.
"I understand why some people don't do that," Wirfs said. "I'd feel like I was letting my teammates down. I made a commitment to them for 12 weeks, plus camp. It feels like you're kind of bailing on them. So there's no way I wouldn't."
Wirfs said he did not discuss his decision with Epenesa. But he wasn't surprised they both reached the same conclusion.
That means at least three more weeks of practices with the Hawkeyes for Epenesa and Wirfs. One game to conclude what could become a 10-win season.
Both players have met with coach Kirk Ferentz. Both have submitted their paperwork to get feedback from NFL teams. That will indicate how high they are likely to be drafted. And that will inform their decision on whether to leave early.
Safety Geno Stone said he's done the same thing. Wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette has not, saying he doesn't think he's ready for pro football just yet.
"I've gotten a lot of people's feedback that don't have any affiliation with the NFL. I'm looking forward to seeing it," Epenesa said.
Wirfs said he's leaving the NFL discussions up to his mother, Sarah, and uncle Rich.
"I just wanted to have my focus on my teammates and each game, each week. I'm just focused on USC right now," said Wirfs, who was named the top offensive lineman in the Big Ten.
"I don't even know how to go about that. I think my mom has been bombarded a lot more than i have, and my uncle. I feel bad just kind of putting it all on them. My mom said she'd take care of it and she wanted me to just focus on the season."
The season will conclude in Southern California.
The Holiday Bowl has featured a Big Ten Conference team under its current contract, which began in 2014. This is the final year of that deal. Mark Neville, the executive director of the bowl game, said he'd hoped all along to land the Hawkeyes.
"Not only are they a great football team and had an outstanding season, they're known around the country to have the most avid fans," Neville said Sunday afternoon. "We look forward to bringing all the traditions of Hawkeye football out here to San Diego. They're going to be playing another tradition-rich team in USC.
"We hit a home run."
Iowa is aiming for a third consecutive bowl victory, having won the 2017 Pinstripe Bowl and the Outback Bowl last New Year's Day.
The Hawkeyes are also aiming for their ninth season with 10 or more victories.
USC is on a three-game winning streak, just like Iowa. The Trojans are led by freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis, who has thrown for 3,242 yards and 28 touchdowns.
The teams last met in the 2003 Orange Bowl, with USC winning 38-17. Iowa is 2-7 all-time against the Trojans.
Iowa won the 1986 and '87 Holiday Bowls. The Hawkeyes' last trip to San Diego, in 1991, resulted in a 13-all tie against BYU.
Neville's first year with the Holiday Bowl was in 1991, when he was an intern.
"I remember a lot of people in the stands for that game. I was blown away by the experience," he said. "So it's pretty fitting to have Iowa back. We're confident that all the Hawkeye fans coming out to San Diego, they're going to have a memorable, outstanding time."
The best bowl game Iowa could have gone to this year was the Citrus, in Orlando, Florida. No. 17 Michigan was selected for that New Year's Day bowl instead and will face Alabama.
The Holiday was next for the Hawkeyes in the Big Ten Conference's pecking order, since Iowa went to the Outback last year. It's also a destination many Hawkeye fans seem keen to visit, given the 28-year gap.
“Every year, there seems to be a fan favorite," Iowa athletic director Gary Barta told the Register on Thursday. "This year, I think people are gravitating toward San Diego.”
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at email@example.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.
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