TAMPA, Fla. — The last time Iowa had won a bowl game, it did so with a lightning bolt of a 56-yard pass that erased the team’s short-circuitry in that game’s fourth-quarter.
On the first day of January 2009, Iowa won a bowl against another SEC team. It wasn’t by plucking it out of the sky with a last-second miracle, but by using 60 minutes of substance. Rock-solid substance.
It won’t make the kind of instant lore that Drew Tate-to-Warren Holloway created, and it won’t become a poster that will hang on walls of rec rooms in Iowa homes for decades.
But you know what? It’s better.
The Hawkeyes brought Hawkeye football to Raymond James Stadium Thursday, at the expense of a completely outmanned, outworked South Carolina squad. The score was 31-10. The game was over well before halftime.
Iowa didn’t surprise Steve Spurrier’s team a bit with what it did on either side of the ball. It just did it. And did it, and did it, and did it.
It was Kirk Ferentz football. It was Hawkeye football. Like all programs, Iowa’s is a fragile ecosystem. But when Ferentz’s players are the right ones and of the right minds, as they were in 2001 through 2004, the system works.
“We had a dip at the end of the 2006 season,” Ferentz said after Thursday’s triumph. “I’ve said many times on record that it’s probably the toughest six weeks I’ve gone through.”
Iowa went from 5-1 to 6-6 that fall, losing its last five Big Ten games. It began a two-year run of genuinely mediocre football accompanied by off-field problems that were far worse than the losing. Ferentz made a lot of most-overpaid coaches’ lists. His name and “hot seat” shared a lot of sentences.
Back in Iowa, you no longer saw a halo over the coach’s head. It looked like we might be watching a man spinning his wheels as some of his players tarnished the reputation of the program and university with some bad trouble away from the stadium.
So what did Ferentz do? Fire some assistants, abandon his beliefs, turn away from the core of who he was and what he had established in search of a quick fix?
Nah. The guy is old-school in a lot of ways, and dealing with problems with common sense and focus rather than throwing people under a bus is one of them. Getting players to represent their school better on and off the gridiron was another.
It sounds like cornball stuff, sure. But it is Iowa, after all.
The Hawkeyes were 3-3 halfway through this regular-season. Why no blame-games from players? Why no cave-in from a team that knew too well what it was like to see a season disintegrate?
“I think it’s just been responding,” said senior center Rob Bruggeman, the subject of quarterback Rick Stanzi’s raves (”Great line calls. He makes everything easier.”) after the game.
“You never focus on the negative and just try to turn it into a positive,” Bruggeman said. “We had a stretch where we lost three games in the middle of the season, and there was never a negative attitude in the locker room. Nobody was pointing fingers.
“I think it started in the off-season. We came together as a team, decided we weren’t going to get down on each other, we were going to stay positive the whole season. We just focused on that.”
The right attitude requires putting in the work, 12 months per year. Iowa has always had to labor harder than many BCS conference programs to reach the Top 25. That has to be something that is understood and embraced. But it’s tough to pull off, anywhere.
“It takes a lot of work,” said another stellar senior Hawkeye offensive lineman, Seth Olsen. He sat on a chair in the bowels of the stadium Thursday and quietly basked in the satisfaction of a game well played and a year well spent.
“Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard,” Olsen said. ““That’s one of the quotes in our program. That’s obviously true for us.”
Credit from one Hawkeye to another flowed like Gatorade after the game.
“Our offensive line came together tremendously since last year,” said senior Brandon Myers, who will probably become another Iowa tight end to graduate to the NFL. “I knew that right away in camp. Shonn wouldn’t have done what he did without this group.”
Ah yes, Shonn. That’s Shonn Greene. You know him. The nation got introduced to him too late for a trip to the Heisman Trophy ceremony, but he was everybody’s All-America.
Greene was Greene again Thursday. The yards, the first-downs, the bludgeoning of a defense, and a ninth Iowa win. Then he announced he was turning pro. It was decent of him, really, to say it now and let everyone move on right away.
For the umpteenth time, Greene praised his blockers. He took it beyond that at the team’s postseason banquet last month, asking Iowa’s offensive linemen to join him when he received his team co-MVP award.
“Phenomenal,” Olsen said about Greene.
That covers it in a word, but Olsen added: “He flatters us. He made us look good this year, too.”
Oh, Iowa’s defense had a rather productive season itself, allowing a mere 13 points and 94 rushing yards per game and bowing out with domination over a Steve Spurrier-coached offense.
“It’s been a great year,” Ferentz said. “I just told the team I can’t remember one that was more enjoyable. That includes the championship years. This was a championship in its own right. It feels pretty good.
“This is a team I’ll remember for a long time.”
This was a football team again. Hawkeye football is again substantial.
Iowa probably won’t be ranked higher than 20th in next week’s final AP poll. But are there as many as 10 teams in the nation that are better?
I don’t think so. South Carolina probably doesn’t, either.