TAMPA, Fla. – Louisiana State may have taken a little of the late-season shine off of the Iowa football season, but the Tigers may have helped focus the future of the Hawkeyes.
“We turned the corner this year, but there is so much more out there,’’ defensive tackle Carl Davis said. “But, we can’t forget how we got here.’’
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz wants his team to remember that as well.
“Last year was last year and next year will be next year. Every team is a little different,’’ Ferentz said following Wednesday’s Outback Bowl performance.
He praised this year’s senior class for providing Iowa with the leadership needed to turn the season around.
Time has also taught the Hawkeye coach that there are no guarantees.
“This group, especially our older guys, they showed the younger guys how to work, how to act, how to think,’’ Ferentz said. “I just hope that everybody has been paying attention.’’
If Iowa was paying attention against LSU, it saw how it must become more consistent on offense, more physical on both sides of the ball, and how it must continue to develop its pass rush and find a level of reliable play on special teams.
The Hawkeyes moved forward in many of those areas during the past season, but as the Tigers demonstrated, Iowa has work to do if it hopes to return to a ranking among the nation’s elite programs.
Wednesday’s 21-14 loss now provides motivation for a team looking to take that next step.
“When you lose one like this, one where as a team you didn’t play your best, it sticks with you and it should,’’ defensive tackle Louis Trinca-Pasat said. “It’s good fuel for the offseason. We had a decent year, nothing to be ashamed of, but it was the type of year where we see so many things we can do better.’’
That motivation led Iowa to the turnaround it enjoyed over the past 13 months, moving beyond the 4-8 season in 2012 to craft an 8-5 record during a year which ended with the loss in the Hawkeyes’ first January bowl appearance since 2009.
“We’ve been left a pretty good blueprint for how to build from one season to the next, for how to become a better football team than we were this season,’’ running back Mark Weisman said. “This year’s seniors deserve all the credit for that. They’ve shown us the way.’’
Weisman said the leadership shown by the 16 Hawkeyes who played their final college game on Wednesday brought the Iowa program back to the competitive level it enjoyed throughout much of the Ferentz era.
“Now, it’s up to us to move it forward another step,’’ linebacker John Lowdermilk said. “We’ve been watching those guys lead and it’s our turn now.’’
That begins in the weightroom later this month, when Iowa’s offseason conditioning program begins, and will include the continuation of group tape sessions that started last spring, providing players with a chance to watch and more importantly discuss what they are watching.
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“We talked football, we talked strategy and it helped put everybody on the same page,’’ Lowdermilk said. “It was something we had not done before as a group – everybody watches tape on their own – but the group sessions the seniors organized really helped us take things to another level. I hope they continue.’’
A competitive approach will continue into spring ball and eventually fall camp where competitive situations are likely for a number of starting positions.
On defense, there are three starting linebacker spots to fill and while Quinton Alston is positioned to replace James Morris in the middle, other spots are open as they are at two secondary positions behind a veteran line.
Offensive coordinator Greg Davis has raved about the work of a group of redshirting freshman receivers, Jordan Canzeri has demonstrated that an ACL injury is behind him and that he can push for additional carries at running back and even Iowa’s quarterback situation will get a hard look in the offseason.
“Nothing is guaranteed,’’ quarterback Jake Rudock said. “That’s the way it should be and that’s the way I like it. Good competition forces all of us to improve.’’
Iowa started 13 underclassmen against LSU, including eight on offense and five on the defensive side of the ball where senior Dominic Alvis replaced junior Mike Hardy at an end position for one final start.
“We weren’t as consistent as we needed to be this season, but we learned and improved. That is the starting point for next year,’’ said Rudock, who watched back-up C.J. Beathard work the final quarters of Iowa’s last two games as he nursed a knee sprain.
“We’ve set the bar higher with what we accomplished this year. Now, it’s up us to see where we can take it.’’