TAMPA, Fla. – It was the biggest play of Iowa’s season, a massive moment that sent the Hawkeyes on an upward trajectory. Perhaps it was the difference between mediocrity and a spot in Wednesday’s Outback Bowl against the LSU Tigers.
In his final appearance at Kinnick Stadium – with the game and Iowa’s postseason fate hanging in the balance – Hawkeyes senior linebacker Anthony Hitchens saved his best moment for last.
On Nov. 23, with the Michigan Wolverines marching for a potentially game-tying field goal with two minutes remaining, Hitchens made a play that he said “will never leave my mind.’’ He stripped the ball away from Wolverines quarterback Devin Gardner at the Hawkeyes’ 31-yard line, then recovered the fumble to preserve Iowa’s 24-21 victory.
On the Iowa sideline, long snapper Casey Kreiter said he got chills and became very emotional.
Cornerback B.J. Lowery was in backside man-to-man pass coverage and initially wasn’t certain what had happened. “I just heard the crowd going crazy,’’ Lowery said.
Hitchens humbly said any of his teammates could’ve made the play. “I was just in the right place at the right time,’’ he said.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz knows better.
“It was kind of an example of how far he came in his career,’’ Ferentz said. “He made himself into a guy who was in position to make a play like that.’’
Hitchens was recruited to Iowa as an “athlete.’’ Maybe he would become a safety. Running back was a possibility.
Instead, he put about 40 pounds onto his 6-foot-1 frame, topping out at 233 and becoming a weakside linebacker who twice led Iowa in tackles.
“He just played at a whole different level this season,’’ Ferentz said. “He didn’t have as many tackles as last year, but he was making them a lot faster and more decisively. The lights came on for him this season.
“He did a lot of extra work and film study. His experience has paid off. But he has worked at it.’’
Iowa’s three senior linebackers provided immeasurable leadership for the Hawkeyes. Hitchens, though, might be the most valuable of all, a concept that was endorsed by his fellow seniors, James Morris and Christian Kirksey.
“He does all the little things so well,’’ Morris said. “His attention to detail has really helped him become a great player.’’
And it allowed him to step up when Iowa needed him.
The strip of Gardner, then the fumble recovery, will live in the minds of Iowa fans. It decided the game against Michigan. But on the previous play, Hitchens pulled down Fitzgerald Toussaint for a loss. On the play before that, it was Hitchens again, stopping Gardner for another loss.
Lowery called it one of the most remarkable sequences he ever witnessed in football.
“Everything paid off for him right there,’’ Lowery said. “He’s always working, always in the film room, looking for an edge. All that work paid off.’’
“We always talk about playing the whole 60 minutes and finishing off the game,’’ Hawkeyes offensive tackle Brandon Scherff said. “I can’t think of a better example than how we finished up the Michigan game.’’
Hitchens said he’s proud of playing with a senior-driven linebacker corps that led the Hawkeyes to a satisfying finish.
“We didn’t want to go 4-8 like we did last season,’’ Hitchens said. “We turned this thing around to 8-4 and now we have a chance to win nine games. Not many people from Iowa can say that. We just wanted to lead this program and get it back going in the right direction.’’
Last season’s finish was bitter. There wasn’t a bowl game.
Even heading into the Michigan game, the Hawkeyes knew they were bowl eligible. But if it slipped away, with the regular-season finale at Nebraska, there was the possibility of a 6-6 mark and no momentum headed into the postseason.
Instead, the Hawkeyes are on a high. They have escaped from sub-freezing temperatures into the sunshine of Tampa.
As Hitchens stood outside the practice field at Jesuit High School, basking in the comfortable climate, one of the downsides emerged. Suddenly, a swarm of gnats appeared and he swatted them away. Even that wasn’t such a bad thing.
“I’d rather push gnats away from me than bundle up and not have a bowl game,’’ Hitchens said.
Hitchens helped to make that happen with a play that won’t be forgotten by Iowa fans – or himself.