Iowa football: Hawkeyes on board with West Coast excitement after Holiday Bowl announcement

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — In the days — and even weeks — leading up to this year’s bowl announcement, the bulk of Iowa players weren't enamored with the West Coast intrigue the way their fan base was. Sunday, though, changed that. These Hawkeyes are ready to explore, and win, in new territory.

Aside from a few redshirt seniors, this current group’s bowl experience has been either Florida fatigue or the cruel draw of playing at a baseball stadium in a cold-weather city — even if New York glitz is included. Only the fifth-year guys, all 12 of them, were a part of Iowa football the last time it ventured west for the 2016 Rose Bowl.

So after Sunday revealed a Holiday Bowl excursion in beautiful San Diego against traditional West Coast powerhouse USC, the newness aspect had the Hawkeyes anxious to depart.

Iowa players Ihmir Smith-Marsette, from left, Michael Ojemudia, A.J. Epenesa and Geno Stone talk with each other during a press conference following the announcement of the Holiday Bowl destination, Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019 at the Hansen Football Performance Center in Iowa City, Iowa.

“I’ve never been to the West Coast, so I’m excited to go to California,” said right tackle Tristan Wirfs, whose Iowa finale could very well come in the Dec. 27 bowl game. “I was one the way over here, A.J. (Epenesa) and me came together, and I said I’ve got to come up with a caption on Instagram — something from "Anchorman," a Ron Burgundy caption — or something. So I’m excited to go out there.”

Wirfs’ reference to the famous Will Ferrell movie set in San Diego was a microcosm of how loose many of these Hawkeyes’ California connections are.

Backup quarterback Spencer Petras is Iowa’s only Golden State native, but he’s from the San Francisco area. Starter Nate Stanley said he’s spent “not really any time” in the Los Angeles or San Diego area.

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Cornerback Michael Ojemudia is the most noteworthy name still on Iowa’s roster who experienced the Rose Bowl trip, joining Brady Ross, Brady Reiff, the Paulsen twins and Nate Wieting as fifth-year contributors from 2015. Wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette last visited California as a prep track star, winning the men’s 4x100 shuttle hurdle at the 2016 Arcadia Invitational just outside Los Angeles.             

“It’s a location thing; you want to go somewhere warm,” Smith-Marsette said. “You want to be in a nice, cool area. … San Diego is definitely better than Detroit (for the Quick Lane Bowl), Tennessee (for the Music City Bowl) — all those (other bowl options). I like the sun. Christmas on the beach has a nice ring to it.”    

From the handful of players who spoke with the media Sunday evening, only A.J. Epenesa had a real attachment to the opponent and location. The All-Big Ten defensive end said he knows four or five USC players also of Polynesian descent and that two of his dad’s siblings live in California.

An aunt lives in Los Angeles, an uncle lives in Oceanside — right outside San Diego. If the Holiday Bowl is indeed Epenesa’s last Iowa appearance, he’ll have a whole crew behind him.

“At least 20 to 25 (people will trek down to San Diego). They’ll be there,” Epenesa said. “If they’re not in the stadium, they’ll be there. There’s a bunch of us.”    

Otherwise, it’s a novelty experience for many — even the program itself. The Hawkeyes’ three Holiday Bowl appearances (1986, 1987, 1991) all predate the Kirk Ferentz era. The Dec. 27 affair will be just the sixth time Iowa has played in the Mountain or Pacific time zones under the veteran coach.

Once New Year’s Six aspirations subsequently vanished with division title hopes, Iowa fans made it clear San Diego was the preferred landing spot. The Hawkeyes are now on board too with the California love.  

“Florida’s been good,” Ojemudia said, “but I definitely like being out west a little better.”

Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.