JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Iowa fans hoping for some fresh football theater to begin 2015 instead got stuck with the same unwatchable reruns.
A sloppy defensive performance full of missed tackles and follies buried the Hawkeyes in a 45-28 loss to Tennessee in the TaxSlayer Bowl before 56,310 mostly-dressed-in-orange fans at EverBank Field.
Two touchdown passes from C.J. Beathard in the final 3 minutes, 30 seconds helped Iowa avoid the worst bowl loss in the Kirk Ferentz era (previously 21 points in the 2003 Orange Bowl).
Iowa finished 7-6, having lost four of their last five games, capped by a loss against a team that went 3-5 in the Southeastern Conference.
"It was a team loss," Ferentz said. "It usually is when you lose."
Ferentz told us that studying film of this Tennessee team triggered memories of Maryland and Minnesota. Those teams diced up the Hawkeyes with their read-option running games to the tune of 89 points in their two ugliest Big Ten Conference losses.
But instead of improved defensive execution, it was more of the same against the Volunteers, who had 28 points before they even faced their first third down midway through the second quarter.
Against the read-option, outside linebacker play is essential. One of those, Josey Jewell, said the game plan wasn't much different than the Maryland (38-31) and Minnesota (51-14) losses. Neither were the results.
"We lost contain a lot of the time," Jewell said. "We didn't pursue to the ball like we should've."
The other outside linebacker, Bo Bower, gave a simpler explanation.
"I don't feel like we showed up today," said Bower, who was replaced by true freshman Ben Niemann in the second half. "We practiced our butts off all week. We just didn't show."
DIGITAL REWIND:Criticism for Hawkeyes from all sides
Tennessee's first drive illustrated the defensive debacle that was ahead. On the Vols' second play, freshman running back Jalen Hurd broke loose from linebacker Bo Bower and sprinted up the left sideline. It would be a long day for Bower. More on that later.
At the end of his 25-yard gain, cornerback Desmond King crashed into Ferentz – creating a gash above the 16th-year head coach's right eye.
That was emblematic of the day: A blown defensive play, followed by pain.
Hurd capped Tennessee's opening drive with a 3-yard touchdown run to put Iowa in a quick 7-0 hole.
True to its word, Iowa rotated quarterbacks in the first half, and Beathard took the Hawkeyes into Tennessee territory on their second drive, but Mark Weisman was stuffed on fourth-and-1 at Tennessee's 33.
"I thought the fourth-and-1 stop was critical," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "We continued to maintain momentum."
More Hurd led to more Hawkeye hurt. A 29-yard touchdown burst looked easy, and it was 14-0 with 2:54 left in the first quarter.
Trickery put Tennessee up three scores after a Jake Rudock-led possession went three-and-out and Dillon Kidd punted 25 yards.
Quarterback Joshua Dobbs flipped a backward pass to running back Marlin Lane. Iowa cornerback Greg Mabin bit, leaving wide receiver Vic Wharton, one of 23 true freshmen Tennessee that played this year, wide open for a 49-yard touchdown pass. Mabin got benched in favor of Maurice Fleming after that.
Iowa struggled to stop the Vols' outside running game.
Dobbs' only touchdown pass, which made it 35-7, came 21 seconds before halftime. Bower had decent coverage on Von Pearson, but failed to turn around to defend the pass.
Substitutions didn't matter for Iowa – at cornerback, quarterback or anywhere else. This was an all-out domination in execution and personnel by the Volunteers in their first bowl trip since 2010.
Tennessee led 42-7 before easing off the gas pedal.
"The first half, we didn't come out there with our hats on," King said. "The second half we tried to make a little progress out there."
One program was on the rise here and left that way. The other was left with grass stains on their white jerseys, hands on their hips and a gash to the head coach's face.
The Hawkeyes lost 45-28 to Tennessee. Chad Leistikow/The Register