TAMPA, Fla. — A red-eyed and emotional C.J. Beathard sat in a chair and reflected on an Iowa career filled with mixed results.
His Hawkeyes finished 8-5 this season after a 30-3 loss to Florida on Monday in the Outback Bowl. It was the worst game of Beathard’s career. The senior quarterback completed 7 of 23 passes for 55 yards and three interceptions. He injured his right hamstring and hobbled throughout the second half. It nearly was as painful to observe as it was for Beathard to admit defeat in such fashion.
“It’s my last game as a Hawkeye, so it’s emotional as it is, whether you win or lose,” Beathard said. “I’m going to miss the heck out of these guys, every last one of them. I’ve had some great memories, great wins, great times. Now it’s on to the next part of my career, my life right now. As much as this is tough, and you make mistakes to lose like that, you’ve got to move on.”
Beathard, cornerback Desmond King, defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson, tight end George Kittle and running back LeShun Daniels formed the backbone of a team that won 20 games over the last two years. The Hawkeyes have combined impressive victories with disappointing losses. The era feels both blessed and cursed.
Will this group be remembered for the euphoria of beating No. 3 Michigan this year and Pittsburgh in 2015 with last-second kicks? Or the pain of losing the Rose Bowl to Stanford and Outback Bowl to Florida by a combined score of 75-19? For Tuesday, and maybe this week, it’s definitely the latter. The final result often paints the season with one swipe across the canvas regardless of the color. As for the future and beyond, we won’t know that answer until maybe August.
“That’s kind of how football is,” Beathard said. “Last year was a magical season. And this year, that’s how sports are. You hit some turbulence, and that’s a part of life, a part of sports. You’ve just got to know how to handle the adversity and bounce back. We definitely handled a lot of adversity this season. We didn’t achieve some of the goals, but it’s a matter of how you handle those.”
For context, one has to remember 2014. The Hawkeyes dropped all four rivalry trophy games, including by a field goal to 2-10 Iowa State. Iowa finished 7-6 that year and were blown out by Tennessee in the TaxSlayer Bowl. The program had a stale feel and struggled to move the football. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz jump-started the offseason changes by naming Beathard as the starting quarterback, unseating two-year starter Jake Rudock.
The move immediately paid off for Iowa in 2015. Buoyed with confidence, the Hawkeyes rallied for a comeback win at Iowa State, then drilled a winning 57-yard field goal at Pittsburgh. In the Big Ten opener, Iowa forced a fumble at its 1-yard line to preserve a 10-6 win over Wisconsin. The Hawkeyes kept rolling until it capped the regular season with their first 12-0 record. Beathard was a difference maker, and King was named the Jim Thorpe Award winner as the nation’s best defensive back. He tied a school record with eight interceptions in 2015. Ferentz was named the national college coach of the year.
While a last-second loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten title game hurt, the Hawkeyes were invited to their first Rose Bowl in 25 years. The 45-16 loss to Stanford was embarrassing, but hopes were high for the 2016 season. King declined to enter the NFL draft and returned for his senior year. With Beathard and several other returning starters, Iowa was favored to win the Big Ten West Division again.
But Iowa’s 2016 campaign was filled with gridlock. After two easy wins, including a 42-3 pounding of Iowa State, the Hawkeyes lost to FCS power North Dakota State at home. The team’s best wide receiver, Matt VandeBerg, suffered a broken foot after a shoulder-shrugging 14-7 win at Rutgers. The team lacked confidence in losses to Northwestern, Wisconsin and at Penn State, which gained nearly 600 yards.
Then, in maybe the greatest one-week turnaround in Iowa football history, the Hawkeyes shocked No. 3 Michigan, 14-13, at Kinnick Stadium. The statistical disparity between the teams entering the contest had oddsmakers listing Iowa as a three-touchdown underdog. Penn State had pounded Iowa 41-14. But in an old-school Big Ten slugfest, Iowa true freshman kicker Keith Duncan booted a 33-yard field on the game’s final play for the win.
The Hawkeyes finished the season with a 28-0 win at Illinois, the program’s first Big Ten road shutout since 2008, and a 40-10 rout of Nebraska. With fan enthusiasm rallying, the Hawkeyes bottomed out in a bowl game.
“You can’t let that one game define the rest of your season or anything like that,” said King, who added his 14th career interception in the loss. “You’ve got to throw it out the window, short-term memory, and move on to the next.”
The knee-jerk mood among Iowa fans continues to shift like a pendulum, and it’s understandable. One season, Iowa is 12-0 and and 30,000 fans travel to the Rose Bowl only to see the Hawkeyes trail 35-0 at halftime. The next season, Iowa’s offense ranks 120th with about 1,000 fewer passing yards and still wins eight games. Another bowl loss — the fifth in a row — leaves fans on edge.
But in it’s last two years, Iowa has won 20 games, was 14-3 in Big Ten regular-season play and claimed seven of eight rivalry trophy games. The Michigan upset an ensuing pandemonium was among the program’s most iconic moments. Beathard has the best winning percentage (75.0) of any Iowa quarterback with 20 victories. King received All-American honors two consecutive years.
The accomplishments this class has made are obvious, as is its disappointment. Its impact is immeasurable. And its legacy is ambiguous.