TAMPA — Iowa cornerback B.J. Lowery was downfield covering a receiver, so he didn’t see the play that changed the Hawkeyes’ season from a good one into a great one.
“I just heard the crowd going crazy,” he said of the 65,000-plus at Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium who braved a wind-chill of near zero to root their Hawkeyes past Michigan in the final home game of the season.
Iowa long snapper Casey Kreiter was on the sideline and was able to watch linebacker Anthony Hitchens strip Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner of the ball and pounce on the fumble with less than three minutes left in the fourth quarter to end the Wolverines’ comeback bid and clinch the Hawkeyes’ 24-21 victory.
“I just kind of had to step back and think, ‘Oh my gosh, we just beat Michigan at home on Senior Day, put ourselves in a great spot (for a bowl game),’ ” Kreiter said. “It was an unbelievable moment. I got a little emotional there for probably five seconds and had to hone it back in.”
Hitchens deflected the credit for his big moment, saying anyone on the Hawkeyes defense could have made that play.
“He had the ball in the wrong hand and I was there to rip the ball out,” Hitchens said.
And yet ...
“That play will probably never leave my mind,” Hitchens said. “It was a crazy play.”
That play and the three defensive plays before that — all by Hitchens — are a big reason why Iowa, which plays LSU in Wednesday’s Outback Bowl, rebounded from a 4-8 season in 2012 to go 8-4 this year.
The victory improved the Hawkeyes to 7-4. The momentum from the Michigan game carried over to a season-ending win at Nebraska and the invite to a New Year’s Day bowl.
“We always talk about playing the whole 60 minutes and finishing off the game,” Hawkeyes offensive tackle Brandon Scherff said. “I can’t think of a better example than how we finished up the Michigan game.”
Iowa’s seventh-ranked defense is a big reason, and that defense is led by a trio of linebackers — Hitchens, Christian Kirksey and James Morris.
“Those linebackers move around to the football,” LSU running back Jeremy Hill said. “The one thing that catches your eye when you watch them is they run to the ball. They shed blocks quickly and they make plays. We’ll have our hands full with those guys. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
Hitchens, first in the Big Ten and fifth in the nation in tackles in 2012 with 11.2 per game, led the Hawkeyes with 102 tackles this season and was sixth in the Big Ten with an average of 8.5 tackles per game. He was named second team All-Big Ten and shared team MVP honors with Scherff.
Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said Hitchens developed into a game-changing linebacker as a senior.
“This year he played at a whole different level. He didn’t have as many tackles, but he’s making them a lot faster and a lot more decisively,” Ferentz said. “The light really came on for him this season. It was a lot of hard work and film study, experience paying off.”
Michigan led Iowa 21-7 at the half, yet the Hawkeyes rallied and took the lead on Mike Myers’ 34-yard field goal with 6:02 to play. The Hawkeyes were poised for their third consecutive win against the Wolverines ... provided the defense could make one last stop.
Hitchens, who hurried Gardner and forced him to throw incomplete on the previous drive, tackled Gardner for a loss on first down and stopped running back Fitzgerald Toussaint for a loss on second down.
Then came the fumble recovery (Hitchens’ only one of the season), the victory and a trip to Raymond James Stadium.
“When Hitchens made that fumble, it was unbelievable, especially on Senior Day,” Kreiter said.