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Keeler: So, which Hawkeye team will show up?

[ 6 ] December 27, 2010 |

The Hawkeyes lost, but played well against Ohio State...

Are they the bullies that turned Kirk Cousins upside down and shook him for his lunch money? Or the stiffs who couldn’t tackle a bunch of woebegone Gophers?

Which Iowa team shows up for the Insight Bowl in Tempe this evening? The gang that traded punches with Ohio State? Or the group that never seemed to land one in Bloomington or Minneapolis?

“Yeah, I think, most specifically, none of us are really thrilled about the performance in the last game,” Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said of the regular-season finale at Minnesota, a stunning 27-24 setback on Nov. 27. “That’s probably the most recent thing that we’re thinking about. This is a chance to get back on the field, hopefully play a better game.”

Recent history says the Hawkeyes will turn up with ears burning and nostrils flaring; Iowa’s won four of its last six postseason games and outscored its last two bowl opponents by an average of 16 points.

...but lost their regular-season finale at Minnesota, which sent their record to 7-5. (Matthew Holst/Iowa City Press-Citizen photos)

But this is also a unit with a depleted running back corps and minus the all-time pass-catcher in school history (Derrell Johnson-Koulianos).

Since early November, if it wasn’t for bad luck, the Hawkeyes wouldn’t have had any luck at all. After a while, that gets in your head, a scarred psyche bracing for the worst.

“When you’re Iowa and you had a little bit of a disappointing season and you thought you’d be in the Rose Bowl at least (in the) mid-season, you have to wonder about the team’s motivation anyway,” ESPN college football analyst Ed Cunningham offered. “Do they want to go? When I’m doing a bowl game, the one the main things I always look for is, which team does winning matter more to?”

And there’s the rub. When a bowl game that was supposed to be beneath you is now suddenly in front of you, how will you respond? In a season pre-destined for greater stakes, is the thought of simply playing for pride motivation enough?

“Some people are saying, ‘We’re going to a bowl game that no one wants to go to,’ ” former Hawkeye linebacker-turned-analyst Mike Humpal said. “In 2007, we didn’t even go to a bowl game. Any bowl game would’ve been great — Detroit, the Motor City Bowl, would’ve been an awesome bowl to go to. Guys come here because they want to play in a bowl game.”

Some of the faithful pointed to the late-season collapse as a failure of leadership on the part of the Hawkeye upperclassmen.

But that doesn’t jibe with the friends he knows and trusts, says Green Bay Packers tackle Bryan Bulaga, another ex-Hawkeye standout.

“I really think it was a good group of people — you’ve got (Adrian) Clayborn and Ricky (Stanzi) and a group of people on the team that I just don’t think would let that happen,” noted Bulaga, who declared for the NFL Draft as a junior after Iowa’s victory in the 2010 Orange Bowl. “The guys I’ve talked to, they’re pretty excited about this bowl game. You’re playing a 10-2 team ranked 14th — I don’t think they’re anything but excited.”

And why not? For the 26 seniors on the Hawkeyes’ roster, including Clayborn and Stanzi, it’s a window to write a happy ending for a saga that’s featured the kind of wackly plot twists — drug houses, transfers, suspensions, heart troubles — you normally find on a tawdry daytime soap opera.

It may not erase the sins of the last seven weeks, but it is a chance to have the last, definitive word. Will Iowa fans love it or leave it?

“No question, our last time out, we didn’t play very well,” Ferentz said. “If we don’t play better, we’ll lose by 40 in this one. It won’t be pretty.”

To paraphrase the movie “Forrest Gump,” that’s the trouble. With these Hawkeyes, you never know what you’re gonna get.

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football

About Sean Keeler: Sean Keeler has been a sports columnist at The Des Moines Register since 2002. Got a story tip, comment, complaint? E-mail him at skeeler@dmreg.com. You can follow him on twitter at twitter.com/seankeeler or on Facebook at facebook.com/smkeeler. View author profile.

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