A trip to Orlando to take on 2003 national champions LSU in the Capital One Bowl, for the first-ever meeting between the two schools.
The Hawkeyes have never played in the Capital One Bowl, nor have they ever played in Florida Citrus Stadium, but the postseason trip to the Sunshine State will be Iowa's second straight after defeating SEC opponent Florida 37-17 in the 2004 Outback Bowl. The Hawkeyes are 10-8-1 all-time in bowl games, and are making their fourth straight trip to the postseason after defeating Texas Tech in the 2001 Alamo Bowl, losing to USC in the 2002 Orange Bowl, and beating the Gators last year.
The 2004 season started promisingly enough for Iowa with season-opening home wins over Kent State (39-7) and rivals Iowa State (17-10), but unraveled slightly with consecutive road losses at Arizona State (44-7) and Michigan (30-17).
From there on out, however, the Hawkeyes are undefeated, with wins against No. 23 Ohio State, Purdue, and No. 9 Wisconsin among the more impressive of the nine victories.
What makes the nine wins even more remarkable is the way in which the team overcame a slew of injuries on the field, any one of which could have derailed their season completely under a lesser coach. Marcus Schnoor and Albert Young suffered season-ending knee injuries before the trip to Arizona, while Jermelle Lewis injured his ACL against Michigan State in week five and joined Schnoor and Young on the "out for the season" list. Marques Simmons sprained an ankle against the Buckeyes and did not return until the season finale against the Badgers, and came back just in time to replace Sam Brownlee, who missed the game after being carted off the field one week prior with an ankle injury.
What does that quintet have in common, besides high medical bills? They are the top five running backs on Iowa's depth chart.
So how good a coach is Kirk Ferentz? He won a share of the Big Ten title with the equivalent of Jason Spadoni carrying the ball out of the backfield while Alley Broussard, Joseph Addai, Justin Vincent, Shyrone Carey, and Jacob Hester all watched from the sidelines wrapped in bandages – and that is without mentioning the loss of Iowa fullback Champ Davis to a season-ending ACL and MCL injury against Illinois on October 30.
And before you think the backfield is the only unit on the team that makes Iowa resemble a M*A*S*H unit more than a locker room, consider this: Tight end Mike Follett (back), wide receiver Calvin Davis (knee), defensive back Jonathan Zanders (collar bone), linebacker Mike Humpal (knee), offensive lineman David Walker (triceps) and defensive lineman Ettore Ewen (knee) all picked up season-ending injuries during the team's run to the Capital One Bowl.
With an injury report like that, it is a miracle the Hawkeyes were even able to field a team at the end of the season, let alone claim the conference crown. But yet, as squad members made their way to the infirmary one by one, Iowa banded together, got stronger, and kept right on winning. And winning. And winning.
The seven-game win streak they closed out the season on is tied for the sixth-longest in Division I-A. Three times this season a Hawkeye game was decided by two points – and Iowa won all three. It wasn't always pretty (see the 6-4 win over Penn State for evidence of that), but as any coach will tell you, a win is a win.
With all of the injuries to the running backs, 6-0, 185-pound sophomore quarterback Drew Tate found himself the center of attention in Iowa City, and the man responsible for putting points on the board every time the Hawkeyes took the field. The second-year signal caller responded impressively, completing passes to a school record 19 players, for a total of 2499 yards, 18 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. Tate ranks first in the Big Ten in passing with 262.4 yards per game, as well as pass efficiency at 137.1, while also ranking second in total offense with
255 yards per game.
Most of those passes were sent in the direction of 6-3, 200-pound junior Clinton Solomon. The Fort Worth, Texas, native has posted four 100-yard receiving games already this season, and turned in his biggest performances when it mattered the most – the four games, and all five receiving touchdowns, came against Michigan State, Ohio State, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.
Solomon's 15.3 yards per catch average is the best in the Big Ten, while the wideout also ranks third in receptions and second in receiving yards.
Lining up opposite Solomon out wide is fellow junior Ed Hinkel. The 6-1, 190-pound Erie, Pa., native leads the Hawkeyes with seven touchdown receptions, while also catching 53 passes for 651 yards for a 12.3 yards per catch average.
When Iowa isn't throwing the ball into the end zone for a touchdown though, points are coming thick and fast off the boot of placekicker Kyle Schlicker. Schlicher, who replaced current San Diego Charger Nate Keading this season, posted school records with five field goals and 17 points against Minnesota, including a career-long 49-yard effort. So far this season, Schlicker is 20-of-25 field goals and 26-of-29 point after attempts, and the sophomore earned Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week honors twice, after wins over Ohio State and Minnesota.
But much like its bowl opponent LSU, Iowa's strength lies on the defensive side of the ball, where the black and gold sit tenth in the nation overall to the Tigers' No. 3 ranking. While the Hawkeyes are not overly adept at shutting down an opponents passing game, ranking No. 34 in the nation with 198.91 yards per game given up through the air, the team excels in stopping the run, giving up a meager 90.2 yards per game – 14.3 fewer than LSU.
The main reason teams have a hard time moving the ball against Iowa is senior defensive end Matt Roth, a preseason Lombardi, Hendricks, and Nagurski Award nominee. The 6-4, 270-pound senior leads the Big Ten in forced fumbles (3) and sacks (8), and his 14.0 tackles for loss are fourth in the conference. Described by LSU lineman Marcus Spears as "flat-out mean," Roth is the kind of player who revels in having a little dirt under the fingernails, and a drop of someone else's blood on his uniform.
You want a player with an engine? The lineman is seventh on the team in tackles (45), first in sacks and quarterback hurries (8 of each), and second in tackles for loss. If that isn't enough, all but one of the sacks and tackles for loss, and all three forced fumbles, came during conference action.
The eight sacks tie Roth for the team lead with fellow lineman Jonathan Babineaux, a senior from Port Arthur, Texas. Babineaux, a two-time Big Ten Player of the Week winner in 2004, ranks fifth in the nation and first in the conference in tackles for loss with 20.5, and against Wisconsin the 6-2, 280-pound tackle returned a fumble for a team-season-long 39 yards.
CAPITAL ONE BOWL PREVIEW: LSU v. Iowa
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