There’s no such thing as a bad trip to the Rose Bowl, but Iowa’s first visit since 1991 was humbling for the Hawkeyes and the entire Big Ten West.
Before the 29-point loss to Stanford on Jan. 1, the Hawkeyes had taken advantage of a favorable schedule, surviving some absolute nail-biters and finished their first 12-0 regular season in school history.
They basically came one play — one big stop on Michigan State’s 22-play, 82-yard Big Ten championship winning drive — from reaching the College Football Playoff.
All season, the Hawkeyes had been lucky and good. But by the time Cardinal star Christian McCaffery finished with them in Pasadena, critics wondered if they’d just been lucky and well-positioned, in a watered-down division.
“After the Rose Bowl, we didn’t dwell on it,” Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard said. “You can’t take away from the season we had.”
Now, Iowa has a chance to roll through another special season — and add a sweeter finish. The Hawkeyes are consensus favorites to win the West again, though Nebraska, Wisconsin, Northwestern and the Gophers should have something to say about that.
Iowa lost 21 seniors from last year but has 13 starters back, including Beathard, who limped his way to second-team All-Big Ten honors last year.
Injured before halftime in Week 3 against Pittsburgh, he played through pain in his hamstring, hip and groin before undergoing surgery to repair a sports hernia after the Rose Bowl.
“The only positive of C.J. being injured last year is we got to see how tough he was physically,” coach Kirk Ferentz said.
Iowa’s schedule sets up well again. The Hawkeyes drew five of their toughest opponents at home — North Dakota State, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Michigan and Nebraska.
Like all West Division teams, the Hawkeyes must play five conference road games, as the league has adopted a nine-game conference schedule. But Iowa’s road opponents — Rutgers, Minnesota, Purdue, Penn State and Illinois — combined to go 10-30 in the Big Ten last year.
After winning five one-score games last year, the Hawkeyes learned to thrive when they had small margins for error.
They were tied with Iowa State with three minutes remaining. They needed a 57-yard field goal to edge Pitt.
Wisconsin would have spoiled the undefeated season had Joel Stave not fumbled on the 1-yard line in the fourth quarter of a 10-6 loss.
When Iowa’s stingy defense faltered against the Gophers, the Hawkeyes rushed for 272 yards to win 40-35. When they got outgained by Nebraska 433-240, they forced four Tommy Armstrong interceptions, returning one for a touchdown.
“I think that’s the nature of college football,” Ferentz said of all the close games. “It certainly is for us at Iowa. And for us to be successful, it usually gets down to little detail things.”
The Hawkeyes meshed the way coaches can only dream, and changed the dialogue around Ferentz after going 34-30 the previous five years. He is entering his 18th season, and Iowa is working on another contract extension.
If it’s really a “lifetime deal,” Ferentz hopes it’s a long one.
“You know the joke,” Ferentz said. “Hayden Fry said he had a lifetime deal at SMU until they pronounced him legally dead.”
Under Ferentz, Iowa has faltered twice coming off a strong season with heightened expectations, namely with the 7-5 finish in 2005, and an 8-5 season after winning the 2010 Orange Bowl.
This time, Iowa lost leading rusher Jordan Canzeri, but three other top backs return, led by Akrum Wadley, who averaged 6.0 yards per carry.
Beathard won’t have his best deep threat — Tevaun Smith, whose 85-yard touchdown gave Iowa a 13-9, fourth-quarter lead against Michigan State. But Matt VandeBerg (65 receptions) and top tight end George Kittle (six touchdowns) return.
Eight defensive starters return, including junior linebacker Josey Jewell (126 tackles last season) and cornerback Desmond King. After winning the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back, King opted against leaving early for the NFL.
Ferentz gave King the same advice he had given guard Brandon Scherff, who returned for his senior season in 2014, won the Outland Trophy and was still a top-five draft pick in 2015.
“From my vantage point, there are few times in life where you get to do what you want to do, not what you have to do,” Ferentz said. “Every one of our NFL guys that comes back always tells our team the most fun they’ll ever have is in college.”
Last season was fun — until the ending. This season, the Hawkeyes will try to script a better finish.