TAMPA, Fla. — It wasn’t as if a lot of illusions got shattered.
When Iowa’s football team faced teams that had a load of talent and could match the Hawkeyes’ physicality, it seldom ended well for Kirk Ferentz’s men.
Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, LSU. Nobody in that foursome got bullied by the Hawkeyes. You had to play four tough quarters against each to have a chance. That never happened for Iowa, which closed the season 8-5 and was another Big Ten bowl-victim to the SEC.
There were intoxicating good feelings from closing the regular-season with a pair of wins over Michigan and Nebraska to get to eight wins and Wednesday’s Outback Bowl against LSU, and with good reason. That sweep is a big deal this or any other season.
But the emotional bounce from that great seven-day stretch had many thinking Iowa could ascend even further with almost a month to get ready for the Tigers.
If you felt the Hawkeyes’ offensive line would wilt LSU’s defensive front, that was a bit on the dreamy side.
If you thought LSU would be nonchalant about playing an unranked foe in Tampa, wrong-o. If you thought Iowa’s receivers would suddenly develop SEC sprinters’ speed and rid themselves of Tiger defensive backs, uh uh.
If you guessed freshman quarterback Anthony Jennings would panic after encountering turbulence, guess again.
Iowa was close to the 10-win Tigers, one of America’s marquee teams. But it isn’t there yet, and certainly wasn’t there in Raymond James Stadium.
The Hawkeyes’ 21-14 loss to LSU was a “what might have been” in theory only. The better team won. There’s no huge shame in that. Iowa came, it competed, it lost by a touchdown to a team that projected to win by that margin.
The Hawkeyes did some really nice climbing this season, clearing others’ expectations by tangoing in Tampa. But there were limitations, and this game showed them.
“We competed hard and gave ourselves a chance to win,” Ferentz said. “It wasn’t looking good today, but we’re right back in the ballgame. That doesn’t happen if you’re not built right internally.”
The internal stuff was good this season. A cluster of seniors led a revival that allowed the rest of the team to start getting asked about next season immediately after Wednesday’s game.
“As a competitor you let this one burn and let this one fuel your off-season,” Iowa junior defensive tackle Louis Trinca-Pasat said.
“You don’t hang your heads. We had a good season, but at the same time, we can do things so much better.”
“Individually,” junior all-Big Ten offensive tackle Brandon Scherff said, “I have to become smarter, faster, stronger, all that.”
“We have to follow the footsteps of the seniors,” said junior running back Mark Weisman. “James Morris, Brett Van Sloten, Casey Kreiter, Chris Kirksey — all of them were such great leaders for us this year.
“They brought it back for us.”
Iowa won’t be dismissed with a flick of the wrist this summer. No one will include Ferentz in any list of the nation’s worst coaches.
Scherff is an All-America-in-waiting. His quarterback, Jake Rudock, has the right stuff. Running back depth is no longer a subject with the program. And defensive line, an overmatched crew in 2012 when Iowa went 4-8, could become a dominant unit in 2014.
That will start with senior-to-be tackle Carl Davis, who made strides as large as himself. But a play that proved there is plenty of room for growth came midway through the second quarter.
LSU running back Jeremy Hill got the ball on 3rd-and-3 at the Iowa 18. He went right at Davis and drove him backward like a tackling sled. A play that looked like it had little potential turned into a 4-yard gain when Hill was through.
“That was a surprise,” Davis said.
Hill ran 14 yards on the next play for a score, a sliver of his abuse of the Hawkeyes. His 216 yards was the best rushing day against Iowa in 13 years. He was tackled for a loss just once on 28 carries.
Iowa’s defense wasn’t terrible. It held LSU to 302 yards and kept its team in the game. But when Hill needed yards, he got a lot of them.
Next year, maybe Davis does the driving against the biggest boys on the schedule.
He called this season “a good step for me, but it wasn’t good enough. When I’m able to turn a game around by myself, be able to split double-teams … I want to be where I have to have triple-teams. I want to be that magnet that everybody has to block.
“Today I wasn’t that. I didn’t make enough plays in the backfield.”
That’s the kind of thing you want to hear from your returnees. You want to hear what John Lowdermilk said dropping his 71-yard interception-return on the LSU 1, incredibly lucky the ball wasn’t recovered by a Tiger in the end zone.
“Stupid on my part,” the junior safety said over and over. “That’s not Iowa Hawkeye football.”
No, it wasn’t. Hawkeye football this season was a good thing again. It was, as Weisman described it, “heart and soul.”
Every season has a different narrative. But a lot of good pieces in important places are coming back next season. It’s not at all hard to see this team playing in January again next year.