IOWA CITY — Even before Iowa steps on the field Wednesday at the Outback Bowl, the Hawkeyes’ senior class has crafted a legacy it can call its own.
The 15 seniors have righted the ship following a forgettable 4-8 season in 2012, reinvesting in fundamentals which have traditionally led the Iowa program to success and committing themselves to the work which led to an 8-4 record and an opportunity to face LSU in the noon game at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium.
“We knew that if we worked hard throughout the offseason that a great outcome was possible,’’ linebacker Christian Kirksey said. “This season has been all about hard work. I never doubted that we would get it done.’’
The only thing linebacker James Morris questioned was whether there was time to turn things around to the extent the Iowa was able to this season.
“There is doubt, there is worry, I suppose, in anything you do in life,’’ he said. “There’s always a risk that what you set out to do might not actually happen. I wanted to come here and win a Big Ten championship, but that didn’t happen. That doesn’t mean I’m disappointed.’’
Morris said the Hawkeyes now reap the rewards of the work they put in dating to the end of the disappointing 2012 season, the only year in the last 13 that Iowa did not earn enough victories to be eligible for a bowl game.
“You work hard, put everything you have into it, to ease those doubts,’’ Morris said. “If you know you’ve worked hard and you’ve done your best, even if you don’t achieve what you wanted to achieve, you can still be proud because what more could you have done?’’
Coach Kirk Ferentz believes there is little more that this senior class could have contributed as they worked to push the Hawkeye program beyond the 2012 season.
The start of those contributions began three days after a 13-7 loss to Nebraska on a gray, frigid Black Friday at Kinnick Stadium.
Iowa players gathered for an early-morning meeting and Ferentz delivered a short, yet straightforward message to the Hawkeyes’ returning players.
“You have two choices. You can get back to work and do something about it, or you can sit around and make excuses,’’ Ferentz recalls telling the group.
The Hawkeyes went to work.
Casey Kreiter, a senior long snapper from Central DeWitt, believes the genesis of Iowa’s on-field success this season started with its off-field work in Chris Doyle’s weight room last winter.
“The focus by this entire team going back to last winter has been to not let what happened last season ever happen again,’’ Kreiter said. “It has been all about getting back to the basics and that started in the offseason, getting up in the dark of night for those 6 in the morning lifting sessions and making the most of every one of them. We didn’t have a day to waste.’’
The motivation wasn’t hard to find.
There was the sting of six straight losses to finish the Big Ten season, the disappointment of a four-win year and the reality of spending the holidays at home for the first time in their collegiate careers. It was all real and raw for the Hawkeyes.
Offensive lineman Brett Van Sloten said players took it personally when they heard people criticize Ferentz and other coaches for the team’s failures in 2012.
“We were hungry the whole offseason,’’ offensive lineman Brett Van Sloten said. “We tried to flush it, but it’s hard to flush a season like that. It has been in the back of our minds for the past year. It wasn’t going to happen again.’’
Van Sloten believes that hunger has fed Iowa’s motivation for months.
“I don’t think we’d be in the position we are in right now if we had not gone through what we went through a year ago,’’ Van Sloten said. “Going 4-8 was pretty eye opening, told us that something had to change and it was on all of us, not just the coaches. The players were the ones who didn’t get it done on the field.’’
That led the Hawkeyes to put their trust in what they were being taught by coaches and not take anything for granted.
Kreiter sensed that taking place last winter.
“The work was hard, but nobody complained. We knew it was necessary,’’ Kreiter said.
The buy-in came naturally, understanding that Ferentz and his staff had led Iowa to turnaround seasons in the past.
“That has been big and that led to a lot of trust that helped move us all forward,’’ Van Sloten said.
Ferentz compares this season’s turnaround to the way Iowa bounced back in 2008 after missing a bowl berth in 2007 after ending a 6-6 season with a loss at home to Western Michigan, saying both teams were led by a “high-quality group of guys who were committed to making sure we got back to where we wanted to be.’’
In both seasons, the Hawkeyes added more than 60 yards per game to their rushing average and have made significant improvements in defending the run. Both teams also won their final three regular-season games to secure a New Year’s Day bowl opportunity following 5-3 Big Ten seasons.
That 2008 team ended its season in the Outback Bowl, handling South Carolina 31-10 to earn its ninth win of the year, and Ferentz said that coincidence presents this year’s senior class with one final test.
“The thing I think is very similar between this team and 2008 is that these guys will be very anxious to perform well in their last ballgame,’’ Ferentz said. “The 2008 group did that. They took the challenge and rode it right into the last game. That’s the challenge that’s ahead of us now.’’