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PASADENA, Calif. — Probably most realistic Hawkeye people see the 2015 Hawkeyes as an unmitigated success. That was after all a 12-0 regular season, a school record for victories and Iowa’s first perfect regular season since 1922.
The hot air was released from the 7-6 hangover that was 2014. Iowa won all four of its traveling trophies. The Hawkeyes claimed their first Big Ten West Division title.
All good, positive things. The 12-0 set the table for the really big things, a Big Ten championship game victory and the program’s first Rose Bowl victory since 1959.
Those didn’t happen. The Rose Bowl was an emphatic downer, with running back Christian McCaffrey notching a bowl-record 368 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns in a 45-16 victory before 94,268 at the Rose Bowl.
And now, probably, even the most tender-hearted Hawkeye people feel an emptiness. As sterling as 12-0 was, it’s now crumpled into an 0-2 postseason with losses to top-10 Michigan State and the Cardinal.
“We’re all disappointed at the outcome of the game today, the way we played,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “But that being said, I just say it one more time, just how proud I am of our football team. They’ve been a tremendous group all season long. Thirteen times they’ve prepared well, they’ve competed hard, and today just didn’t work out for us.
“Obviously, very, very proud of the way the guys have done things, and that really goes back 12 months. So this game hurts. We’ll learn from it. We’ll move on. We’ll improve. Right now, it certainly hurts and it’s something that we’ll deal with.”
There’s that emptiness. The Hawkeyes played in their first Rose Bowl in 25 years. The most common question in the postgame was how this team might now be perceived after reaching a historic precipice and then landing with a thud.
“A game like this doesn’t define an entire season,” defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson said. “We played well the entire year. We could’ve played better today. Looking back, there’s nothing to be upset about.”
The suspense drained away quickly from Iowa’s sixth Rose Bowl. The game was tied, unofficially, for about 11 seconds.
On the game’s first play, Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan threw a short pass to McCaffrey. Free safety Jordan Lomax dropped in to try to cover him. Linebacker Cole Fisher slipped. That was more than enough space for McCaffrey to zip 75 yards for a TD.
“That was their goal, they were trying to get him into open field,” cornerback Desmond King said. “They know what he can do when he gets the ball in his hands. We knew exactly what was going to happen.”
While McCaffrey, whose second TD was a 63-yard punt return, provided the flash, the Cardinal defense pitched in with the thump.
During a Rose Bowl-record 35-0 first half, Iowa’s possessions went 8 yards and a punt, defensive back Quenton Meeks’ 66-yard interception return for a TD, minus-6 yards and a punt, minus-2 yards and a punt and 28 yards and a punt.
It was 14-0 six minutes into the game. It was 28-0 less than one minute into the second quarter.
“We tried to play our game for most of it, but when you get down that much that early, you have to switch up the gameplan a little bit,” Beathard said. “It’s tough, especially for us when we get down. We like to run the ball and burn some clock. For us it’s tough when we get down early.”
Stanford’s offense did it every which way in the first half. In addition to McCaffrey’s 75-yarder and the 66-yard pick six, it put together TD drives of eight plays and 74 yards and eight plays and 85 yards.
A 75-yard TD on a simple seam pass that traveled maybe 10 yards in the air showed what the college football world already knew about McCaffrey, who finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting. It also showed that, uh oh, the Hawkeyes might be outgunned here.
“Just like this game won’t define this team, one play doesn’t define a game,” Ferentz said. “We had ample opportunity after that to play, but to put it on that would really diminish the way they played. They played a tremendous game in all phases.”
So, 12-0 season and 0-2 postseason. You can debate whether or not it’s glorious or something short of it.
Ferentz’s message to his players after the game was to not allow the loss to define the season. That thought echoed. In the Rose Bowl lockerroom, in the last moments the 2015 Hawkeyes would spend together, they listened to their coach.
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