BRONX, N.Y. – Sending an 18-player senior class off with Iowa’s first bowl victory since 2010 was a worthy objective, but a Pinstripe Bowl victory can have even more value.
Underclassmen believe that the 27-20 win over Boston College can become a springboard for the 2018 season and beyond.
“There’s a blueprint now for us to do this again,’’ defensive end Parker Hesse said. “It’s not just some goal on a sheet of paper that we’re all working to achieve. It gives us a good starting point for next year and an opportunity to work toward even bigger things.’’
The Hawkeyes gave themselves a chance to be in that position by dominating on defense during the second half of Wednesday’s win at Yankee Stadium.
“We started playing the way we are capable of playing,’’ defensive end Anthony Nelson said. “Just getting after it, playing physical Iowa football. When we’ve been at our best, that’s where it has started. That second half is a good way to go into the offseason.’’
After giving up 281 yards in the first half, Iowa surrendered 102 yards and three points in the final two quarters. The same Boston College offense that averaged 7.02 yards on its 40 first-half snaps averaged just 3.4 yards on the 30 plays it ran in the final two quarters.
Coach Kirk Ferentz believes the biggest difference for Iowa in the final two quarters was that Iowa became the aggressor.
“That certainly starts up front. That’s where a lot of good things happen,’’ Ferentz said.
Ferentz believes the effort can be a launching pad for the future if Hawkeye players let it become one.
“Every season is a new discussion, but one thing that is good is finishing with a win. I don’t think there’s any question about that and it’s on a couple of levels,’’ Ferentz said.
He said beyond creating a great final playing memory for a senior class which helped lead Iowa to 28 victories over the past three seasons, it also teaches younger players the value of the December preparation for bowl games.
“Hopefully, this reinforces that and maybe next year when we talk about it, assuming we can earn a bowl invitation again, maybe it will have a little more meaning, a little more gravity,’’ Ferentz said.
Plenty of returning Hawkeyes will have a chance to put that to work.
Only seven seniors started for Iowa in Wednesday’s game and three of them, Josey Jewell, Ben Niemann and Bo Bower, leave linebacker as the biggest question mark on the Hawkeye team as it begins working toward 2018.
The Hawkeyes’ offense continues to have questions at receiver, where 54-game starter Matt VandeBerg must be replaced, but youthful inexperience in other areas in 2017 will create opportunities for strength next season.
While center James Daniels joins cornerback Josh Jackson in exploring an early exit for the NFL, the season-long experience tackles Tristan Wirfs and Alaric Jackson gained and Levi Paulsen’s snaps throughout the year and in the Pinstripe Bowl give Iowa a line that will likely return four starters.
Quarterback Nate Stanley and a large, deep group of tight ends led by Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson return, but there are holes to fill on offense.
Akrum Wadley, one of four Hawkeyes ever to rush for 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons, and James Butler ended their careers as Iowa’s leading rushers in 2017.
Toren Young, Ivory Kelly-Martin and Toks Akinribade will provide the Hawkeyes with a good blend of backs to build around and Brady Ross provides experience at fullback where Drake Kulick rushed for his first career touchdown in his final college game.
Defensively, development of an eight-player rotation this season on the line will absorb the graduation loss of the lone senior, Nathan Bazata.
Jackson’s decision and potential position changes related to the three linebacker openings will impact the starting point for the Hawkeye secondary.
Matt Hankins opened at right corner opposite Jackson on Wednesday and Iowa returns back-ups Manny Rugamba, Michael Ojemudia and third-year sophomore Cedric Boswell.
Defensive coordinator Phil Parker hinted last week that Iowa may look at current safeties Jake Gervase and Amani Hooker as a way to bring experience to linebacker at the outside position.
Freshman Geno Stone made an impact and will factor into a safety spot that could see new contributors.
At linebacker, Jack Hockaday, Kristian Welch, Aaron Mends, Amani Jones and Nick Niemann all have experience on special teams, but did not see the snaps on defense in a back-up role that Parker would have liked this season.
They should all be part of a wide-open competition.
On special teams, Iowa returns kicker Miguel Recinos and its primary return men, Ivory Kelly-Martin and Ihmir Smith-Marsette, but punt remains problematic.
Colten Rastetter and Ryan Gersonde, limited by injuries this fall, return but both labored from start to finish in Iowa’s 8-5 season.