TAMPA — Forget the charter flight back to Iowa City, or even the bus ride to the airport. For brash, Burlington-bred Iowa defensive tackle Mitch King, the walk to the bus was painful enough.
King's team had just fallen 16-13 at Michigan State, failing on fourth and 1 in Spartans territory with just more than two minutes to play. For the third consecutive Saturday, the Hawkeyes had lost to a bowl-caliber opponent by less than a touchdown. The torment had become too great to suppress, at least for Iowa's long-haired dynamo and brazen captain.
So the Burlington quote factory went off. Just before boarding the bus, King essentially predicted the Hawkeyes — then 3-3 — would win out and reach a New Year's Day bowl game.
"I don't know if it was those exact words that we were going to win out and all that stuff because obviously we didn't," King recalled. "But I just knew that our team was coming along. There were just some little mistakes here and there, one or two plays per game that hurt us. And I knew that once we got those corrected, because the coaches harp on mistakes … we were going to do some good things."
Three months later, the Hawkeyes (8-4) are in the Outback Bowl, and King's prophecy is in Iowa football lore. Only 11 points — the combined margin of its three Big Ten losses — separate Iowa from the Rose Bowl. Subtract a 27-24 loss at Illinois, on an Illini field goal with 24 ticks remaining, and King's forecast would have been dead on.
"I think it was the attitude that we needed," said fellow defensive tackle and former King roommate Matt Kroul, who has made a school-record 49 consecutive starts. "I think guys believed if we did the right things and played our best games we'd put together a good string."
Meet the face — not to mention voice — of Hawkeye football. As South Carolina has learned in its preparation for Iowa, King, the Big Ten defensive lineman of the year, talks and tackles a good game despite surrendering roughly 20 pounds to the average opposing blocker.
"He plays every down and he's a very physical, hard-nosed player," said Gamecocks center Garrett Anderson, who likely will find himself face mask to face mask with King on Thursday. "He goes hard every down and he's really good with his hands. I don't have any special technique to block him, I've just got to match his intensity, which is really high."
The youngest of five siblings, King, listed at 6 feet 3, 280 pounds, arrived in Iowa City in 2004 as an all-state linebacker before being moved to the trenches the spring of his freshman season. That fall, in a 20-10 win at Wisconsin that he considers his biggest college win to date, he had four tackles for losses, including two sacks.
From there, King's legend and locks grew. He shaved off the latter five days before his final home game, a 22-17 win against Purdue, when his sack of Curtis Painter forced the Boilermakers to burn their final timeout. Many insist that on that play, like countless plays before it, King was held.
But from an emotional perspective, he never has been held back.
"I yell at the refs quite a bit, but you know, you've just got to fight through it," King, 22, said. "You've got to expose (the holds) for what they are and work through it. Holding happens every play, you've just got to work through it."
Voluble? Nah, just vintage King: sound bites with no filter and zeal with no bridle. Ask for an adjective describing his friend, and senior linebacker Gavin McGrath immediately says, "passionate."
"Whatever he's doing, he's passionate about it," McGrath said, "whether it's friendship, as a football player, as a son, he's going to be passionate about it, and he's going to care more maybe than anybody about what he's doing."
On Thursday, King will lead a Hawkeyes defense ranked 10th nationally against the run (98.25 yards per game) and eighth in scoring (13.25). By contrast, South Carolina enters with a freshman quarterback (Stephen Garcia) and a rushing offense that finished last in the SEC (98.3 ypg).
Shapes up as one final chance for the Hawkeyes captain — shorn locks be darned — to let his hair down.
"He's always been the vocal leader and kind of the energy leader on our team," Kroul said. "It's a position that I think he wanted to take and he just kind of fell into it."