SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The holiday season runs from Thanksgiving to New Year's Day, and it’s a time to take relief from work and relax. But for the Iowa football team, such relief will not come until the players return to work, when it takes the field for Tuesday’s Insight Bowl.
What sweet relief it will be.
Missouri (10-2, 6-2 Big 12)
vs. Iowa (7-5, 4-4 Big Ten)
WHEN: 9 p.m. Tuesday
WHERE: Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Ariz.
RADIO: KTGR/1580 AM
Relief from having to answer questions about drug testing, transfers, team depth and losing to one of the nation’s worst teams.
Any team would be hard pressed to concoct a holiday season worse than the one Hawkeyes are enduring, but the Iowa players are taking the month in stride, looking forward to Tuesday, when there will be no more talking, no more questions — just football.
The Hawkeyes began the season ranked No. 9 in the AP poll, and were firmly in the Rose Bowl conversation well into November. Then it all went wrong. Three consecutive losses to end the regular season, the last to lowly Minnesota, dropped the Hawkeyes out of the rankings and into the Insight Bowl.
It was only the start a woeful month in Iowa City.
On Dec. 7, Iowa’s best receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos was arrested and later charged with possession of controlled substances and unlawful prescription drugs along with keeping a drug house. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz suspended Johnson-Koulianos after the arrest.
That same week, Ferentz suspended his team’s leading rusher, Adam Robinson, for violating team rules and announced that another running back, Jewel Hampton, would be transferring and would not available for the the Insight Bowl.
The next day, Iowa Athletic director Gary Barta said that the school, during an audit of the school’s drug testing program, had found strong evidence that players were finding ways to subvert the tests.
With controversy swirling around a normally solid program, the Iowa players, led by 25 seniors, took on a new mantra — shut up and hit somebody.
“This whole bowl practice has been physical,” sophomore wide receiver Keenan Davis said Sunday. “We’ve been in full pads the whole time. We’re focusing on Iowa against Iowa.”
Davis said the team lost its desire at the end of the season, but a renewed fire for practice has helped the team rediscover its competitiveness.
Defensive end Adrian Clayborn agreed that tough practices during the controversy realigned the team. Clayborn said that against Minnesota, the Hawkeyes “let them win,” and that Iowa had to get back to playing their style of physical football for the bowl game, regardless of who is in or out of the team's lineup.
Senior quarterback Ricky Stanzi, the leader of the Hawkeyes, said his message to the team was to get back to having confidence and thinking positively.
“The last couple months have been a wake-up call,” Stanzi said. “It just gets back to doing the little things, going back to work, working hard in practice and having a positive outlook on everything.
“Our attitudes are up to us. If you want to sit there and listen to it and take in all that negative talk, it will start to weigh you down.”
Stanzi said he and the other seniors haven't needed to be too vocal during the trying weeks.
“Coach Ferentz does the talking,” Stanzi said. “Not a whole lot needs to be said by the players. Coach will lead us with his words.”
During Sunday’s press conference, Ferentz acknowledged that the Hawkeyes are being stretched by suspensions, injuries and transfers, and tested by program shortcomings. Even so, Ferentz said he was pleased with the way his team worked during December.
“We’re normally operating with a pretty thin margin for error,” Ferentz said. “We’re a little thin right now, the guys have worked this month, and we’ve had a lot of time to get some work in.”
Even with the cloud hanging over the Iowa team, a win Tuesday could potentially clear the skies.
“If you win, things are great — you could be playing in Alaska,” Ferentz said. “If you lose — you could be playing in a beautiful place like this — and it leaves a bad taste in your mouth … It’s all good when you win.”