Outback Bowl Football

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz is anxious to see how graduate transfer James Butler fits in with returning senior running back Akrum Wadley on this year's team.

AP

TAMPA, Fla. — It was quite a ride.

The Iowa football team which left the Outback Bowl with an 8-5 record experienced it all.

From the heartbreak of a stinging last-second loss to North Dakota State to the euphoria of watching Keith Duncan’s game-winning field goal take down second-ranked Michigan, the Hawkeyes dealt with plenty in 2016.

It was a season which began with expectations, some unrealistic, following Iowa’s 12-0 run through the regular season and berths in the Big Ten Championship Game and Rose Bowl a year earlier.

This wasn’t that team and in replacing 21 seniors from that memorable season, it never could be.

There were pieces in place. A senior quarterback in C.J. Beathard, a Jim Thorpe Award winner in Desmond King provided a foundation.

Leadership provided by a 14-member senior class proved invaluable as the Hawkeyes wove their way through what linebacker Ben Niemann labeled “the never-ending roller coaster ride’’ following Monday’s 30-3 frustrating finale against Florida.

This was a team that needed a strong core of leaders to survive the highs and lows of one of the more interesting seasons that coach Kirk Ferentz has had in the 18 Hawkeye teams he has coached.

Few Iowa teams have dealt with the highs and lows that this Iowa team experienced.

Ferentz frequently compared it to the 2008 team, which like this Hawkeye team found itself at a crossroads nine weeks into the season.

Both were 5-4. Both finished the regular season with three victories. Both rang in the new year at the Outback Bowl.

The 2008 team finished off its season with a win over South Carolina, something this Iowa team was unable to manage with an inconsistent performance against the Gators in pretty much every phase of the game.

“To lose the bowl games the way we did, the last three by a lot, that’s not who we are, that’s not how we play. It was frustrating and embarrassing,’’ said Akrum Wadley, who joined LeShun Daniels as a 1,000-yard rusher this season.

But, Florida took advantage of the inconsistencies of the Iowa offense and particularly its disconnect between quarterback and receivers in the passing game.

The Hawkeye defense also struggled with tackling issues and big plays reminiscent of those which plagued the team at times during the season, including in an ugly 41-14 loss at Penn State which preceded the late-season string of success that included a dominating win over 17th-rated Nebraska in addition to the 14-13 win over the Wolverines.

That led to the deciding margin Monday and a loss that became more lopsided than it needed to be when the Gators turned three fourth-quarter interceptions by an injured Beathard into 13 points.

“Certainly we were disappointed to lose, but it doesn’t define this football team,’’ Ferentz said following the program’s fifth straight bowl loss.

“…They’ve had a lot of good moments on and off the field, all the things they’ve done, off the field, on it, academically, character and then football-wise, 20 wins in two years now and 35 in the last four years of their career.’’

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Ferentz believed Iowa was prepared for what it faced in Florida. He was pleased with its preparation in the weeks leading up to the game.

“I thought our game plan was good. There were just some things we didn’t execute, and those little details mean a great deal to us,’’ Ferentz said.

The detail work will continue in a couple of weeks, when the Hawkeyes return to the weight room to begin offseason strength and conditioning work.

Another bowl flop will provide motivation for all but the nine seniors who started for Iowa against the Gators.

Much like the difference between 2015 and 2016, next year’s Iowa team will create its own storyline defined by growth and development in upcoming months and by embracing the knowledge gained from lessons learned during the journey which culminated with Monday’s loss.

There will be a new quarterback to work with the healthy return of Matt VandeBerg and work behind an offensive line which returns six players with starting experience.

There will be new defensive tackles, a new look at cornerback, a new punter and depending on what Wadley decides about his future, possibly complete turnover at running back as well.

“We have a lot to learn from and a lot of work to do,’’ linebacker Josey Jewell said. “We need to grow from games like this. If we do, we’ll all be better because of it in the future.’’

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