Dec. 20, 2008
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IOWA CITY, Iowa — Raymond James Stadium, home of the Outback Bowl, was also home for six years to Tampa Bay’s Warren Sapp, one of the most prolific, intimidating defensive tackles to ever grace the National Football League.
Sapp left the Buccaneers following the 2003 season, but not before compiling 94 sacks and winning the 1999 Defensive Player of the Year award (Raymond James Stadium opened in 1998, meaning Sapp played his first three seasons at Houlihan Stadium).
Sapp is gone, but there will be a pair of pretty decent defensive tackles representing the University of Iowa in Raymond James Stadium on New Year’s Day when the Hawkeyes play South Carolina. Homegrown products Mitch King (Burlington, Iowa) and Matt Kroul (Mount Vernon, Iowa) are both fifth-year seniors and four-year starters on the Iowa interior defensive front.
“To even think of myself in Warren Sapp’s category would be ridiculous, but it’s going to be fun playing down there,” King said. “For a defensive tackle, it will be nice knowing there’s a great legacy down there with Warren Sapp. It’s going to be an honor to play in that stadium again.”
Iowa is making its fifth trip to a January bowl in the past seven seasons. This will be the third Outback Bowl for the Hawkeyes, who defeated Florida 37-17 in 2004 and fell to the Gators 31-24 in 2006. King played in the ’06 Outback Bowl as a redshirt freshman, compiling two tackles (one solo, one assist).
“I’ve been in a nice program that has allowed me to play in multiple bowl games,” King said. “I’m excited. The Outback is a very good venue and it’s a great city to play in. The last time we were down there it was a lot of fun and the people were very nice. I’m just excited to go back and experience that and hopefully get a win this time.”
King was named first team all-Big Ten and most valuable defensive player for the Hawkeyes after posting 52 tackles during the 12 regular-season games with a team-high 15 ½ tackles for loss. King also led Iowa with four quarterback sacks and six quarterback hurries.
UI defensive coordinator Norm Parker describes King — a converted linebacker — as one of the best defensive football players he has seen in his 10 years as a Hawkeye.
“He’s as good a college football player as we’ve had since I’ve been here on defense,” Parker said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he went some place (in the NFL) and made it. It still gets down to a little bit about what you have inside you whether you make it or not.”
“To even think of myself in Warren Sapp’s category would be ridiculous, but it’s going to be fun playing down there. For a defensive tackle, it will be nice knowing there’s a great legacy down there with Warren Sapp. It’s going to be an honor to play in that stadium again.”
UI defensive tackle
It was King, after a heartbreaking 16-13 loss at Michigan State on Oct. 4 that left the Hawkeyes 3-3 overall, 0-2 in the Big Ten, who boldly predicted that Iowa would win its final six games, finish 9-3 and be invited to a Jan. 1 bowl game. A last-second 27-24 loss at Illinois was all that kept King’s prophecy from coming completely true, but at the time few people outside the immediate Hawkeye family could have envisioned winning five of the final six games.
“Seeing the guys around the locker room and seeing how hard we practiced and seeing how good we were getting day-by-day, week-by-week,” King said. “I just knew if we could get a little confidence and a little pep in our step, we could do a lot of good things and we showed that the last half of the season. I knew we had the tools to do it, we just needed some things to fall into place for us.”
And fall into place they did. The Hawkeyes remained on the road for the third time in four weeks Oct. 11 and defeated Indiana 45-9. They returned home and dismantled Champs Sports Bowl-bound Wisconsin 38-16. After the last-second setback at Illinois on Nov. 1, Iowa concluded the regular season with three consecutive victories — 24-23 over Rose Bowl-bound Penn State, 22-17 over Purdue and 55-0 over Insight Bowl-bound Minnesota. Six of the 12 Hawkeye opponents are playing in postseason bowl games and a seventh — Maine — played in the NCAA Division I Football Championship Tournament.
The good news for Hawkeye fans is that according to King, the best of the black and gold might not be unveiled until Tampa.
“There’s a lot of growth left in this team because we’re so young all-around and that’s encouraging,” King said. “We haven’t been part of such a unified team in so long. Everybody’s 100-percent committed to the same goal…no individuals and no selfishness that would stop you from having that unified feeling. We’re really clicking.”
When the game clock expires on Jan. 1, 2009 — following a 60-minute war between Iowa and South Carolina — it will mark the end of King’s collegiate football career. It will not, however, mark the end of King’s playing days at Raymond James Stadium.
To view a 20-image photo gallery from Saturday’s practice — available exclusively on hawkeyesports.com — CLICK HERE.
Fans of the Iowa Hawkeyes who live in the Heartland or in the Sunshine State or in all points between should note that the UI Athletics Ticket Office is accepting ticket orders for the 2009 Outback Bowl. Click here to purchase your tickets online. Fans can also purchase over the phone by calling 1-800 IA-HAWKS or over-the-counter at the UI Athletics Ticket Office in Carver-Hawkeye Arena.