FERNANDINA BEACH, Fla. -- Blue sky, sunshine, and a cool breeze greeted the University of Iowa football team at its first practice in the state of Florida on Friday. The Iowa Hawkeyes opened practice on Pirate Field at Fernandina Beach High School.
It is less than one week until kickoff of the TaxSlayer Bowl that pits the 7-5 Iowa Hawkeyes against the 6-6 Tennessee Volunteers. It will be one of several Big Ten/SEC showdowns.
On Friday, the Big Ten Conference split their first two of ten bowl games the conference will play during the 2014-15 bowl season.
In Dallas on Friday, Illinois (6-7) senior QB Reilly O'Toole threw for 295 yards and a touchdown for the Fighting Illini and fellow seniors Jon Davis and Donovonn Young each found the end zone in their final game for the Orange and Blue.
But special teams and big plays burned Illinois in a 35-18 loss in the Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl on Friday afternoon.
Louisiana Tech (9-5) saw senior Cody Sokol throw a 80 yard touchdown pass to Kenneth Dixon to put the Bulldogs up 14-3 early. The former Iowa reserve QB finished 14-28 for 287 yards with the lone touchdown pass against the Fighting Illini.
The Bulldogs are now 2-0 in the Illini series and against Illinois head coach Tim Beckman.
In Detroit on Friday afternoon, the Big Ten picked up their first win. The Rutgers program closed their inaugural B1G season on a highly positive note.
It was almost impossible to come away from Rutgers’ dominant 40-21 victory over North Carolina today in the Quick Lane Bowl at Ford Field without feeling the program’s future is bright.
How can it not feel that way when a couple of Rutgers freshmen running backs turn in the type of performances that Josh Hicks and Robert Martin did, accomplishing something only Ray Rice had before them – followed by star wide receiver Leonte Carroo’s locker room announcement that he will return for his senior season?
But this wasn’t just about what’s ahead. For the 19 departing seniors it was a reminder of the mark they left on the program, helping to put an exclamation point on Rutgers’ inaugural Big Ten season.
Tabbed by many to finish last in the East Division of the Big Ten and to be a sub-.500 team, the Scarlet Knights finished a rousing 8-5.
“We stayed strong as a team,” said Rutgers senior left guard Kaleb Johnson. “There were ups and downs this season but this team stayed together, never got down on each other. That’s what strong senior leadership can do for you.
“When you have that and you stay together through the tough times you have a chance to accomplish the things we did this year. That’s what stands out to me about this team.”
At one point in this bowl victory, Rutgers had a 40-7 lead and had turned in what was arguably its most complete performance of the season to that point. Only a couple of touchdowns by North Carolina (6-7) in the final 6:45 spoiled that.
But it didn’t take away from the dominance. Hicks (who was named the game's MVP) rushed for 202 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries and Martin added 100 yards and two scores on 19 carries as the Scarlet Knights – powered by an offensive line featuring three seniors – rolled up 340 rushing yards.
That’s a school record for a bowl, the most rushing yards by the Scarlet Knights since 2007 (against Army) and Hicks and Martin joined Rice as the only true freshmen in school history to rush for 100 yards in a bowl game.
“When you see 300-plus on that rushing stat you know you did your job,” said fifth-year Rutgers senior right tackle Taj Alexander. “To go out like this it feels great. Being here five years you think about everything it took to get to this point and you really appreciate it when you have a game like this, especially when it’s your last one.”
Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova didn’t dazzle in his final game (9-of-20 for 184 yards with two touchdown passes) but he didn’t have to. And he was good with that.
“I think this senior class deserved this bowl win,” he said. “I think we deserved to go out like this. That’s all that matters.”
Because the running game was so good, Nova only needed to complete two passes in the second half. But the damage was done by then. Rutgers’ 23-0 halftime lead was its largest ever in a bowl game, and it was 37-7 with 14:11 to play after a 34-yard Nova-to-Andrew Turzilli touchdown strike and a 28-yard scoring run by Martin. Kyle Federico added a 31-yard field goal with 10:04 remaining to make it 40-7.
“I couldn’t be prouder of this football team and what they accomplished today,” said Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood. “They’re a special group of young people.”
The defensive side did more than its share, quieting a North Carolina offense that is the most productive in school history. Rutgers fifth-year senior strong safety Lorenzo Waters played a major role in that, collecting 14 tackles, recovering two fumbles and blocking a field goal attempt.
“It doesn’t get any better than this if you’re a fifth-year senior playing your last college game,” Waters said. “A lot of people get caught up in statistics but it’s not about that. All I did was make plays that were available to me and the way the scheme dictated things.
“They put a lot of my shoulders today, asking me to make a lot of open-field tackles so we could do a few other things on defense, and I was able to do that.”
Carroo’s announcement that he is returning means that Rutgers will be brimming with as much talent at wide receiver as it will at running back.
“I’m very excited about the future for Rutgers. I know we’ll have a great team next year,” said Carroo, who finished with 55 catches for 1,086 yards with nine touchdowns.
Illinois and Rutgers have closed out their 2014 seasons, along with Big Ten peers Indiana, Michigan, Northwestern and Purdue, who each failed to reach a 6-6 season in 2014.
Up next on Saturday are Penn State and Nebraska, as each squares off in their respective bowl games.
Out East on Saturday afternoon, Penn State (6-6) will be making its 45th bowl appearance in program history when they face Boston College (7-5) in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium. The game will kick off at 3:30 p.m. on ESPN.
The game will close out the Nittany Lions era a probation. As the bowl ban was lifted earlier in the season for Penn State.
"We've had a fantastic week," Penn State head coach James Franklin said. "To spend a week in New York City during the Christmas holiday has been unbelievable...It's been first class from top to bottom, so I'm thankful for that. We've had a great week, and we are looking forward to getting out there to play the game."
The Pinstripe Bowl will mark the 24th all-time meeting between the two Eastern rivals. Penn State owns a 19-4 edge in the all-time series, but Boston College has won the last three meetings. The first meeting came during the 1946 season, a 32-14 Penn State win, and the last occurred on Sept. 11, 2004, a 21-7 BC victory.
Penn State enters with one of the nation's top defensive units; ranking No. 1 in rushing defense (84.8 ypg), No. 2 passing efficiency defense (99.71) and total defense (269.8 ypg), and the No. 7 scoring defense (17.7 ppg).
"This is an opportunity to get out there and play the way we are capable of playing and finish on a positive note," Franklin said. "I'm really, really proud of our guys and thankful for the opportunity to be here."
Boston College leans on the running game and the two-headed attack of quarterback Tyler Murphy and running back Jon Hilliman. As a team, Boston College ranks 14th nationally with 251.8 rushing yards per game, with 29 of their 40 offensive scores coming on the ground. The defense is also stout against the run, sitting No. 4 nationally with just 95.5 yards per game allowed. They also rank 12th in the FBS with just 313.5 yards of total offense allowed.
Out West on Saturday night, the Nebraska Cornhuskers (9-3) will kick off at 7 p.m. on ESPN, in the Holiday Bowl against the USC Trojans (8-4). The Trojans, like USC, are recently familiar to bowl bans.
“It helps on some level, we have a bit or familiarity with Coach Sarkisian’s offense,” Papuchis said. “I’m sure they’re going to have a unique plan this time though.”
The Huskers will be working with a linebacker unit that is banged up and will need contributions from players who may see an expanded role on Saturday.
“We’re a bit thin at linebacker right now,” Papuchis said. “We can’t go get any free agents. We’re preparing all hands on deck to be ready. (Josh) Banderas will play, Austin Williams may play, and we’re one snap away from Chris Weber and Marcus Newby being on the field.
With the dismissal of seventh year coach Bo Pelini, after the Iowa game, the Cornhuskers will turn to interim coach Barney Cotton before the Mike Riley era begins for the 2015 season in Nebraska.
The University of Iowa looks to rebound from its season ending Big Ten loss to Nebraska, in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
"Since the end of the Nebraska game (Nov. 28) we have been pushing toward this game, counting down the days until we get to face a good opponent," Iowa junior wide receiver Jacob Hillyer said. "It's good to get (practice) started. Some of the guys were a little sore coming off a five-day block of practice. It's exciting to come into game week and get ready for Tennessee."
Hillyer, from Somerset, Texas, caught 10 passes this season, including one for a touchdown at Maryland.
Facing good opponents is nothing new for the Hawkeyes. Six teams on their 2014 schedule (including four in a row to end the month of November) are bowl bound; Northern Iowa -- its season-opening opponent -- advanced to the second round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
Iowa sophomore cornerback Desmond King is in the midst of his second bowl preparation. One difference from last year is the weather: the Hawkeyes often battled rain showers in Tampa while getting ready for the 2014 Outback Bowl against LSU.
"Last year it was raining so it was a little slippery and we had trouble seeing the ball," King said. "Today was sunny with a cool wind. We had people paying more attention and everybody was focused."
King had two interceptions (one for a 35-yard Pick 6 against Indiana), 54 tackles, and five pass breakups this season. Even though the season has less than six days remaining, King said the Hawkeyes are treating it as another week and not getting ahead of themselves.
"We're getting comfortable in the playbook and trying to get ready for Tennessee on Jan. 2," King said. "It's another step forward."
King said the team got off to a quick start with Friday's practice, calling it a "good, up-tempo day."
Iowa is playing its 12th bowl game in the last 14 seasons under head coach Kirk Ferentz. The Hawkeyes are 6-5 in those postseason games -- more wins than any other program in the Big Ten Conference during that span.
The TaxSlayer Bowl will kick off at 2:20 p.m. on ESPN from EverBank Field in Jacksonville on Friday, Jan. 2.
How strong will the Big Ten close out the 2014-15 bowl season?