TAMPA, Fla. — In a perfect Iowa football world, the Hawkeyes would have more Noah Fants and A.J. Epenesas.
As Alabama and Clemson prove every year, a wealth of sheer talent and athleticism is the surest path to lots and lots of victories. Sometimes you might get weary about hearing about what Hawkeyes Coach Kirk Ferentz calls “good stories,” the guys who emerge from the shadows of shadows and end up in actual games, doing actual winning things.
You might roll your eyes sometimes when hearing for the 234th time about Iowa players who fell through the recruiting cracks and pulled themselves up by the bootstraps. The Hawkeyes live in big-boy, major-college football, where might makes right and it takes blue-chippers to consistently roll.
But here’s the thing: Those bootstrap guys do matter enormously at Iowa. Sophomore defensive end stud Epenesa had plenty to do with Iowa gutting out a 27-22 Outback Bowl win over Mississippi State Tuesday at Raymond James Stadium. Yet, it was a pair of former walk-ons who lifted the Hawkeyes over the top against a team with a bunch of defenders who soon will be in the NFL.
If you see either senior wide receiver Nick Easley or senior safety Jake Gervase in NFL uniforms next September, it will be a semi-incredible saga. But “good story” worked just fine this day and the last couple years.
Without 2019 NFL tight end Fant here to add to his Iowa’s offensive weaponry against the Bulldogs’ daunting defense, game MVP Easley stepped up. He had touchdown catches of 75 and 8 yards, the latter being the points late in the third quarter that put the Hawkeyes ahead to keep. He had eight catches for a personal-best 104 yards.
His 100th career catch was his second TD grab. The Bulldogs put both safeties on All-America tight end T.J. Hockenson.
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“I was like ‘Where are you guys coming from?’ ” Hockenson said. “Then I saw Easley. I’m like ‘Yeah, sweet. Love it.’”
Gervase stayed alert on a play that momentarily looked deflating. He pretty much saved the game. Nick Fitzgerald’s pass on first down from the Iowa 20 was perfectly placed between Amani Hooker and Gervase, to wide receiver Stephen Guidry. It hit Guidry in the end zone. It hit him in the chest. He didn’t catch it. Gervase grabbed the carom in the air, and Iowa kept its 24-19 lead with 8:42 left.
“I kind of got beat on the route itself,” Gervase said, “but never giving up on the play is something our coaches stress. ... I was in the right place at the right time.”
Being in the right place at the right time is pretty much the key to life, isn’t it? For Newton’s Easley, that meant walking on at Iowa in 2017 after playing two seasons at Iowa Western Community College. The first time Hawkeyes Coach Kirk Ferentz ever spoke to him was by phone two years ago from the same Tampa hotel room he stayed in on this Outback adventure.
“I’m so glad he kept an open mind,” Ferentz said. “Sometimes, dumb luck is a really good thing in recruiting.”
“Best decision I ever made,” said Easley. “I’m so thankful to (Ferentz) and for the opportunity he and his staff have given me. Giving kids a chance, treating everyone fairly and with respect — I’m so glad I got to play for him.”
Gervase came to Iowa out of Davenport Assumption. “My recruiting process wasn’t very big,” he said. “Division I-AA, Division III, whatever it was. I didn’t really have many opportunities, but I knew I wanted to play football at the highest level, at the most-competitive level.”
He had seven interceptions over the last two years, including his team’s 20th and most important of the season. He later broke up the Bulldogs’ final play, a fourth-down incompletion from the Iowa 32.
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“Being from Iowa, knowing the history of walk-ons and the success they have at the University of Iowa, following guys like Brett Greenwood and Joe Conklin, I knew I had the opportunity to make an impact if I did things the right way,” Gervase said.
“Our deal is (if) you’re on our team, you’re on our team,” Ferentz said. “Everybody gets the same opportunity to grow and improve.
“A big part of that is mental. It’s one thing to be talented and athletic and all that, but you’ve got to understand how to play, what the values are. It’s pretty deep.”
Gervase and Easley are roommates. They will have much to reminisce about together in the semester ahead.
“Unbelievable ride,” Easley said. “I’ve loved every minute of it.”
“He couldn’t have asked for a better way to go out,” said Gervase. “Just like me.”
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