Clearview graduate Anthony Hitchens will be facing the biggest challenge of his football career when he puts on his Iowa Hawkeyes jersey for the last time today and joins his teammates against LSU in the Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla.
“I’d say this is the biggest game of my career,” Hitchens said. “I’m just really thankful to be in this position.
“A lot of kids dream about this and I never thought I’d get to live in it. I’m enjoying the moment. My mom always told me, ‘Enjoy the moment,’ so that’s what I’m doing. Hopefully, it’ll slow down and stop going so fast.”
The senior linebacker, who was sixth in the Big Ten this season with 102 tackles, was a big part of the turnaround at Iowa.
The Hawkeyes went from a dismal four-win season in 2012 to an 8-4 season, including 5-3 in the Big Ten.
Iowa is one of six BCS conference teams to have improved by four wins or more this season.
“The leadership of our seniors really was key to the season,” Hitchens said. “Not to take anything from last year’s seniors, but this year, us seniors really stepped it up. We were all leaders and it showed on the football field.”
The successful season earned the Hawkeyes a New Year’s Day bowl game against LSU, which went 9-3 this season with losses to Georgia, Ole Miss and Alabama. Hitchens says the team has worked hard in preparation for the game.
“Winning the game is the most important thing,” Hitchens said. “The whole month of December, we’ve worked hard to improve and get better as a team. If we’ve done that, it’ll show up in the game. This a big game for our team and an important for our seniors to go out. We have a lot at stake.”
Iowa’s losses were to Northern Illinois, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Ohio State. The 34-24 loss to the Buckeyes stung Hitchens, especially because he felt they could’ve won that game.
“We had them on the ropes, we just couldn’t finish,” said Hitchens, who recorded 11 tackles in the game. “It was a good atmosphere and it was great playing in front of family and friends in my hometown. It was one of those games I’ll never forget.”
Hitchens will get the undaunted task of helping defend against LSU’s array of offensive weapons, including stand-out wide receiver Jarvis Landry.
“LSU has a lot of athletes,” Hitchens said. “They’re loaded. We’re going to have our hands full. We got to be ready to accept the challenge.”
One of Hitchens’ highlights of the season when his defensive play helped seal a 24-21 win over Michigan. Hitchens spun off a block and chased down quarterback Devin Gardner and ripped the ball away at Iowa’s 31-yard line. He then had the presence of mind to pounce on the ball with a little more than 2 minutes to play in the fourth quarter to secure the win.
“It was definitely a big play for our team and our season,” Hitchens said. “It wasn’t just me, it was three of our linebackers who made that play. They ran him to the sidelines, I was just aware enough to rip the ball away. Any one of our linebackers would’ve made the same play.”
The fumble recovery came one play after Hitchens yanked down Fitz Toussaint for a loss and two plays after sacking Gardner for another loss. The series before, Hitchens rushed Gardner into a third-down incompletion two plays after combining with James Morris to force Gardner into a 4-yard loss.
Hitchens upped his NFL stock with his amazing defensive play all season. His focus remains on his last college game, but playing professional is still a dream that can become a reality come draft day.
“It’s still my dream to play in the NFL,” Hitchens said. “Hopefully, I get the opportunity one day, but I’m still working towards that.”