TAMPA — At this time last year, Brandon Scherff was home with his family in Denison, Iowa, enjoying his Christmas vacation and watching college football bowl games.
All of the bowl games.
“I honestly didn’t like being with my family around that time,” Scherff said Thursday.
He smiled and winked.
But the 6-foot-5, 315-pound Scherff, who plays left tackle for the Iowa Hawkeyes, was serious.
Iowa’s 2012 season ended with a loss to Nebraska, the sixth straight for the Hawkeyes in what was a disappointing 4-8 campaign.
A year later, Scherff found himself at Jesuit High speaking with the media after practice in preparation for Wednesday’s Outback Bowl game against LSU at Raymond James Stadium.
“It was nice being around my family, but I’d rather be here,” Scherff said as he swatted at gnats buzzing around his face.
After a year’s hiatus, the Hawkeyes returned to the bowl scene with an 8-4 season, fueled by a number of factors, but none more important than a commitment to all that is necessary to winning on Saturdays in the Big Ten.
“We sat down and kind of said to each other, we don’t want to go through (4-8) again. We talked about just getting back to work. That’s been the model since Day One,” said long snapper Casey Kreiter, a senior and one of five team captains.
Printed on the senior poster for the 2013 Iowa Hawkeyes are three words: “Back to Work.”
It’s a simple concept, and one the Hawkeyes have lived by this year.
“Four and eight is not what we wanted. A lot of guys were hungry. That left a bad taste in our mouth, and to turn things around we bought into the coaches’ plans,” senior right tackle Brett Van Sloten said. “We have good leadership from our seniors and juniors, and the young guys bought into it well, and that’s how we were able to turn it around, by sticking together as a team.”
There is more to Iowa’s one-year turnaround than attitude.
Among them are sophomore quarterback Jake Rudock, who has improved as the season progressed, and the offensive line that kept him upright, allowing only 12 sacks, fewest on the Big Ten.
The defense, led by a trio of linebackers — Christian Kirksey, James Morris and Anthony Hitchens — plays with more aggression. Iowa had 13 sacks in 2012, but had 20 this season.
The Hawkeyes lost to four teams — Northern Illinois, Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin — who have a combined record of 45-6.
“Our focus, as it has been since the end of (the 2012 season), was just to try and improve, working hard and maximizing our opportunities. That is kind of the formula we have tried to use,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said after the Nebraska win. “The reason why it has materialized is because our players have done the work that they have to do. It is all about our leadership — our seniors and our juniors.”
That work began shortly after Iowa’s season-ending loss to Nebraska in November 2012.
“We started to hit the weights hard,” Van Sloten said. “You could just tell there was a new energy, a new vibe, that we’re not going to take 4-8. We’re done with that stuff.”
Iowa beat Purdue on Nov. 9 for win No. 6, making the Hawkeyes bowl eligible.
Ferentz told the team afterward that it had accomplished one goal. A win the following week against Michigan would enhance their bowl status. After beating the Wolverines, Ferentz told his team a win against Nebraska in the regular-season finale could mean a Jan. 1 bowl.
“It was almost like a playoff system those last few weeks,” Kreiter said. “We set us up to being in the best position that we could, and it ended up working out.”
The Hawkeyes are in Tampa for their fourth Outback Bowl.
They meet LSU for the second time. The teams last played in the 2005 Capital One Bowl, won by Iowa on a 56-yard touchdown pass as time expired.
Iowa has a chance at a nine-win season.
“Not too many people who played for Iowa can say that,” Hitchens said.
It also beats sitting home watching someone else play in the Florida sun.
“Kind of made you upset,” Van Sloten said. “We deserved 4-8. There’s no ifs, ands or buts around it. We didn’t play well. So you sit back and say, ‘What if?’ and it makes you hungry to get back to a bowl game.”
And here they are.