Iowa tight end Allen Reisner and his classmates envisioned a very different path to their senior season.
They had won 20 games the previous two years and helped Iowa claim back-to-back bowl championships (Outback, Orange). Iowa entered this season ranked in the top 10 nationally primarily because of its large and decorated senior class led by national awards candidate Adrian Clayborn.
But things didn't go according to plan, as the Hawkeyes dropped five games, including the final three in November. All five losses came by seven points or fewer and four featured blown leads in the fourth quarter, a surprise for a team that finished games well the previous two seasons.
"No one's happy with the record," Reisner said. "We worked hard and we didn’t want to be where we’re at right now. We’ve just got to keep working."
The beauty of the bowl season is it provides one final opportunity to get things right. Iowa's seniors still can end their careers on a strong note Tuesday night with a win against Missouri in the Insight Bowl.
The Hawkeyes can win three consecutive bowl games for the first time in team history (they have won two straight five times).
"It's definitely big for us," Reisner said. "You want to win every game, but we really want to win this one for three straight [bowls]."
Iowa must lean on its seniors Tuesday after the rough finish to the regular season and the off-field problems that surfaced earlier this month. The team will play without record-setting receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, arrested Dec. 7 on several drug charges, and starting running back Adam Robinson, suspended until January for undisclosed reasons.
Despite the turmoil, Reisner saw no need for the team to regroup before the bowl. The players are already moving forward.
"Those guys are gone," he said. "We're worried about the guys that are here now."
Robinson's suspension leaves Iowa with only one quasi-proven back in true freshman Marcus Coker. DJK's departure puts more pressure on receiver Marvin McNutt and tight ends Reisner and Brad Herman to step up in the passing game.
The good news: Iowa faced a similar situation in the 2010 Orange Bowl. Johnson-Koulianos missed most of the game with an injury, but Colin Sandeman filled in with four receptions for 53 yards and a touchdown. True freshman Brandon Wegher led the way on the ground with 113 rush yards and a touchdown.
"We've been there before," Reisner said. "Derrell wasn’t here in the last bowl game, he was hurt and Colin stepped up and had to play a huge game. We had a freshman running back last year have 100 yards rushing, and we're working for that again this year.
"Both tight ends, Brad and I, are going to have to step up big. We’re going to have to make big plays, we’re going to have to get involved, we’re going to have to get open."
Iowa will be tested by an improved Missouri defense that ranks sixth nationally in points allowed (15.2 ppg) and 41st nationally in yards allowed. Led by speedy edge rushers Aldon Smith and Jacquies Smith, the Tigers' defense reminds Reisner of Arizona's, which racked up six sacks against Iowa in a 34-27 win on Sept. 18.
The Hawkeyes hope their return to the desert brings better results Tuesday night.
"We don't want to lose four straight as seniors," Reisner said. "We’ve had a pretty good record in the four or five years we’ve all been here, and we want to keep that going."