A lot can change in a year.
Take Iowa, for example. A year ago the Hawkeyes stumbled to a 7-6 finish with a particularly disappointing performance in the TaxSlayer Bowl, a 45-28 loss to Tennessee. After failing to go over eight wins in his last five seasons, Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz might have been on the hot seat.
Now, just a year later, Iowa finds itself in its first Rose Bowl game in 25 years and head coach Kirk Ferentz was recently named the Big Ten Coach of the Year after its first-ever undefeated regular season.
Let’s take a chronological look back at some of the key events that allowed Iowa to reach the Rose Bowl.
Jan. 8, 2015: C.J. Beathard named starting quarterback
Just as Stanford’s run to its Rose Bowl appearance was triggered by Kevin Hogan’s return, Iowa’s momentum started early in January when Ferentz named Beathard the starter over returning starter Jake Rudock. Rudock subsequently transferred to Michigan, giving Iowa a clear starter and leader at quarterback.
Beathard’s play evokes memories of a 2012 Kevin Hogan. While not flashy or necessarily the team’s playmaker, Beathard rarely makes mistakes, hits the throws he needs to and adds a bit of an extra dimension in the running game. Without his leadership, efficiency and clutch performances, Iowa doesn’t reach the Rose Bowl.
Sept. 12, 2015: Desmond King powers Iowa past Iowa State
While Iowa State was certainly not a marquee opponent for Iowa, the Hawkeyes lost to their in-state rival in 2014 and trailed 17-10 at the half this time around. Iowa then tied the game up early in the third quarter but struggled to get the lead.
With six and a half minutes to go, first team All-American cornerback Desmond King ripped off a 34-yard punt return that helped set up Iowa’s game-winning score. Then with under two minutes to go, King stepped in front of a pass and intercepted it inside the Iowa State 30-yard line to essentially seal the game.
King would go on to win the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back and finish second in the country with eight interceptions. His ability to lock down one side of the field powered Iowa’s defense all season long, and his uncanny ability to force a turnover at a crucial moment changed the tide of several games.
Sept. 19, 2015: Iowa escapes only Power Five non-conference foe
The critique on Iowa all season long was its weak schedule. The Hawkeyes faced just three ranked teams at the time and five Power Five, bowl-eligible teams. Though Iowa might have cruised to an undefeated regular season, it certainly didn’t challenge itself much along the way.
Facing its only Power Five non-conference opponent, Iowa struggled to gain much of an advantage. Though the Hawkeyes never trailed, they never managed to pull away from Pittsburgh, who would go on to finish the season with an 8-5 record. The Panthers used a 13-play, five-minute-long drive (Iowa really, really hates those long drives) to tie the game up with 52 seconds left, but the Hawkeyes managed to drive down into field-goal range for kicker Marshall Koehn. Koehn drilled a 57-yard field goal as time expired to help Iowa stay undefeated and continue to build positive momentum.
Oct. 3, 2015: Iowa upsets Wisconsin in Madison
Wisconsin was considered the favorite in the Big Ten West at the start of the year even after its loss to Alabama on opening weekend. With this upset win, Iowa put itself on the map and into the top 25 for the first time on the season.
An ugly defensive battle saw Iowa force four turnovers, including a Wisconsin fumble at the Iowa 5-yard line, and manage 10 second-quarter points on the road to a victory. Iowa stuffed Wisconsin on a fourth-and-2 at the Iowa 16-yard line to seal the victory late in the fourth quarter.
Oct. 17, 2015: Signature win over Northwestern
Though Iowa only played only one team that finished in the top 20 in the regular season, it made the most of its opportunity, running ragged on the Wildcats for a 40-10 victory. The Hawkeyes rode 294 rushing yards, three forced turnovers and all-around excellent play to a win over previously undefeated Northwestern.
Of course, Northwestern also represents the only common opponent for Stanford and Iowa, and the disparity in performance against Northwestern could not be greater. Stanford played its worst game; Iowa played its best game. Stanford finished with 85 rushing yards; Iowa had 294. Stanford allowed 225 rushing yards; Iowa allowed 51. Clearly, both teams have changed since their performances against Northwestern. The Rose Bowl will show just how much they have.
Nov. 14, 2015: Hawkeyes’ offense overcomes defense’s lapse
Iowa’s top-15 defense carried the team all season long. Against the Gophers, though, it put up easily its worst performance of the year, allowing a season-high 35 points and 301 passing yards. And even with just five and a half minutes to go, Iowa led by only five. And still, Iowa would cling on for a victory.
Iowa gained 506 yards of offense, a season-high, to overcome the defense’s mishaps. Yet again, critics would point to Iowa’s inability to put together a complete performance against an inferior opponent. But like it did all regular season long, Iowa managed to come away on top.
Nov. 27, 2015: Iowa avoids upset, takes advantage of Nebraska turnovers
The saying goes that it’s better to be lucky than good. Then again, it’s better to be both lucky and good. And Iowa was both lucky and good against Nebraska, the team which handed eventual Big Ten champion Michigan State its only loss.
Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. made poor decision after poor decision, helping Iowa intercept four passes and set up an offense that only needed 250 yards all game to win. Iowa didn’t play significantly better than Nebraska – the Hawkeyes averaged 5.7 yards per play to the Cornhuskers’ 5.2 and were actually outgained by Nebraska by 183 yards – but took advantage of a few of Armstrong’s mistakes and two long touchdown runs from Jordan Canzeri to get the victory, albeit just an 8-point win.
With the victory, the Hawkeyes finished the regular season 12-0 for the first time in their history. No matter the schedule or the margin of the results, that’s a feat that should garner considerable respect.
Dec. 5, 2015: Iowa loses College Football Playoff play-in game in Big Ten Championship
In its only loss of the season – a 3-point loss to Michigan State – Iowa arguably gained more respect around the nation than it did in its 12 wins combined. The Hawkeyes went toe-to-toe with then-No. 5 Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship, showing the poise and the talent of a championship contender, but ultimately fell in the final minute to fall just short of having its dream season end in the Playoff.
The Spartans needed a 22-play, nine-minute drive (those long drives, again) to score the game-winning touchdown with 27 seconds left. The drive forced Michigan State to convert on fourth-and-2 from the Iowa 5-yard line and third-and-goal from the Iowa 1-yard line. If even just one of the 22 plays on that drive turned out differently, Iowa might be the Big Ten champion and get matched up against Alabama in the Cotton Bowl, prompting the Rose Bowl to pick Ohio State instead.
The Hawkeyes’ historic season might have fallen short of the Playoff, but the Rose Bowl berth still feels just as sweet nonetheless.