NEW YORK — Akrum Wadley stood on the dais for the final time as a college running back and wore the same big smile he’s displayed countless times during his five seasons with the Iowa Hawkeyes.
The former 2-star recruit from nearby Newark, N.J., put on a Pinstripe Bowl Champions hat and accepted the MVP trophy after the Hawkeyes’ 27-20 comeback victory against Boston College on Wednesday night. Wadley tipped the field yet again with his performance, and this one was as memorable as any other.
Wadley put up 283 all-purpose yards and all of them mattered at Yankee Stadium. He stepped in for injured kick returner Ihmir Smith-Marsette and set an Iowa bowl record with 171 kick return yards. Wadley’s 72-yard kick return on the final play of the first quarter set up a touchdown. He rushed for 88 yards, including 66 in the second half. He added 24 receiving yards.
“Usually he’s not back there on kickoff return, but he busted off a couple of big runs for us,” Iowa tight end Noah Fant said. “He was definitely a spark in a lot of different ways. He had a couple of big runs on the offensive side of the ball, also.”
“It’s hard to describe,” said Iowa center James Daniels about Wadley’s impact. “He’s done so much for us, and I wish him the best. He’s a really good player.”
Throughout his career, Wadley has come up with big plays in critical moments. In 2015, he became the next man in after multiple injuries and rushed for 204 yards and 4 touchdowns at Northwestern. In 2016, he was the best player on the field against No. 2 Michigan. Wadley popped both Nebraska and Purdue for 75-yard touchdown runs and rushed for game-winning, fourth-quarter touchdowns at Minnesota and Rutgers.
This year Wadley produced highlight reel plays in an epic win at Iowa State, a near-upset of Penn State and a shocking victory against Ohio State. He scored 3 touchdowns in his regular-season finale at Nebraska and claimed the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week Award.
This time, Wadley’s performance may have trumped the rest. Iowa had lost five straight bowl games and trailed the Eagles 17-10 at halftime. Boston College outgained the Hawkeyes by more than 200 yards in the first half. If Wadley wouldn’t rescue Iowa, perhaps no one would.
On the second drive of the second half, Wadley ran three straight times and pushed the ball past midfield. A 32-yard completion put the ball on the Boston College 13. Then on consecutive plays, Iowa fed Wadley on gap blocking and he ate up the yards. His second carry was on a 5-yard blast up the middle to knot the score at 17-17.
To start the fourth quarter, Wadley put Iowa in field-goal range with a 17-yard reception on third-and-8, followed by runs of 7 yards and 10 yards. A 38-yard field goal gave the Hawkeyes a 20-17 lead.
Then in the final minutes with the score tied 20-20, Wadley took a draw from the Eagles 45 and raced 27 yards. Two plays later, the Hawkeyes scored the game-winning touchdown.
“I would say he is one of my favorite players ever just because the way he’s pushed through in his career and he’s gone through a lot of things,” said Iowa fullback Drake Kulick, who scored the game-winning touchdown. “You guys know Akrum’s story so I won’t bore you with the details, but he’s a really special kid. From the bottom where he started to the top where he’s at now, it’s been a pleasure to play with him. I really happy for him, and it’s really cool he got to go out the way he did.”
Wadley extended his grin throughout every postgame interview and joked with reporters as he has throughout his career. He appeared to run more violently than in most games and part of that was rooted in a discussion he had with offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz.
“Coach Brian, he talked about before the game being desperate to win,” Wadley said. “That stuck with me. Every time I touched the ball I wanted to be real desperate.”
Wadley lacked discipline off the field early in his career and struggled to gain weight. He fumbled a few times too many for the coaching staff. Then he grew up, realized his importance and become one of Iowa’s greatest running backs.
With 35 career touchdowns, Wadley finished one shy of Tavian Banks’ program record. Wadley was one of only four running backs in school history to post consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. Wadley has 2,872 career rushing yards to rank fifth all-time at Iowa. His 3,904 all-purpose yards are ninth.
“I’m really proud,” Wadley said. “I’d been through a lot. I never gave up, even though sometimes I thought about giving up. If I would have gave up, none of this would have ever been. None of it would have happened.”
With Wadley one score from tying the touchdown mark, Kirk Ferentz said he would have switched play calls had he known the record was within reach.
“First of all, I’m not a good stat guy,” he said. “We probably would have given him the ball. I guess I didn’t realize he was that close to that record. I’m more fixated on his back-to-back thousand yards. What a career he’s had. And I would echo the comments I made about Josh [Jackson]. Akrum has always been a great guy to work with: great attitude, great personality. You know, and he loves football.”
Wadley smiled when told about what Ferentz said. Of course he wanted the record. But to demonstrate Wadley’s growth as a teammate and a person, one aspect was way more important than a final statistic.
“Yeah I know,” Wadley said. “Nah. As long as we got the touchdown.”
That touchdown meant a bowl victory. With or without a 36th score, Wadley secured his Iowa legacy. In fact, he enhanced it Wednesday night.
Earned his stripes. 🏆 pic.twitter.com/UFK26soUc4
— Iowa On BTN (@IowaOnBTN) December 28, 2017