Two years ago to this day, Iowa walked off the Raymond James Stadium turf and into the locker room with their heads held low.
It was depressing. The core of a team that had started the year before 12-0 and made the Rose Bowl had stumbled to an 8-5 record. The last loss was perhaps the most biting, a 30-3 defeat at the hands of a mediocre Florida team in turmoil.
After the game, they seemed in something of a daze. No one had really expected the Iowa offense to fall apart in that way. Expectations for that squad had been high. They returned so many players off one of the best teams in Iowa history.
Things, though, didn’t work out. Massive changes followed, plunging the Hawkeyes into some of their biggest changes of the Kirk Ferentz era.
Four days following the loss, Greg Davis announced his retirement. Brian Ferentz was eventually tapped to replace him. Ken O’Keefe came back. Various other assistant coaches were added or moved around.
A young quarterback named Nate Stanley started to look like he might end up as the quarterback of the future. A dude named Nick Easley was added to the roster. Time passed, the world continued to spin until it hit 2019.
And at noon yesterday, the Iowa kicked off against Mississippi State. There was already bad blood between the two teams as words had apparently been exchanged during a visit to a hospital, of all places.
But this was a different Iowa team and a different season. Mississippi State was the stand-in for the SEC foe that the Hawkeyes sometimes have trouble contending with. Despite a slow start on offense, things started to pick up.
Nate Stanley, who many Iowa fans love to hate, was able to hit his receivers. Easley, playing in the final game of his career in the Black and Gold, started making catches. The offense started moving.
It hasn’t always been like that this season and the utter lack of a running game was certainly nerve racking. But then again, it’s mostly been Iowa’s passing that has led them to wins this year. They’ve piled up rushing yards against bad teams, but this season has often come down — for better or worse — to Stanley’s arm.
That’s certainly not ideal football in Iowa’s system and I think it’s why the junior signal caller takes so much flack. Interestingly enough, no Hawkeye quarterback has thrown for more yards than Stanley’s 2852 since James Vandenberg in 2011 and 2012.
But as it has for stretchest this year, passing the ball worked. With Noah Fant deciding to skip the game, it meant a heavier load for the rest of the squad (though there’s been plenty of time this season where the soon-to-be NFL tight end has disappeared) and they came through.
Brandon Smith had a nice game, as did Ihmir Smith-Marsette (fumble notwithstanding) and T.J. Hockenson started being targeted towards the end. The defense was pretty phenomenal, with Jake Gervase having a particularly great day. A.J. Epenesa came up huge, as did the steadily improving Chauncey Golston. Matt Hankins was great, Amani Hooker played well and Parker Hesse got a last hurrah.
There were missed opportunities, of course. I think that’s the theme of this season. If you rewind to the three-game stretch where the Hawkeyes lost three contests by a combined 12 points, it might start to make your head hurt a bit. The Wisconsin game, too.
There was plenty of ways for this season to go, but we ended up at 9-4. That’s certainly not bad. It’s the 15th time in school history Iowa finished with nine or more wins. That’s not nothing. It’s a successful season in my book and the second-straight bowl victory for the Hawkeyes. I mean Iowa State’s never even done that.
But more importantly, I think the trajectory of Iowa’s program is moving back towards the right direction. Iowa’s now 37-16 over the past four seasons. Of those 16 losses, only six have been by more than one possession. All but seven have come against teams that were ranked when the Hawkeyes played them.
Yes, there’s still a line we’d all like to cross again: a 10+ win season, but the last few years haven’t been all bad. Iowa’s made a fairly smooth transition at quarterback and keeps finding skill players in unlikely places. The defense has certainly had its downs but mostly it’s had ups. Special teams has been fairly solid overall, though they do need to find a consistent punter and a new kicker.
There are certainly a lot worse places the Hawkeyes could be. We can talk ourselves hoarse about what constitutes mediocrity and the chances that slipped through their fingers. We can talk about all sorts of things.
But on Monday afternoon, Iowa won its bowl game. They’re going to have numerous players drafted in April. Even more are going to end up in NFL training camps. The wheels of time will turn and the Iowa football team will continue to churn out high-quality young men.
And this time on a warm day in Tampa, the Hawkeyes beat the squad from the reviled SEC with the nation watching.
There were no long faces in the Iowa locker room.