IOWA CITY, Iowa - Sam LaPorta knows he’ll start seeing the fans as soon as the Iowa team buses reach Coralville on their way to Kinnick Stadium on game day.
“They’re tailgating — ‘Yeah! Go Hawks!’” LaPorta, Iowa’s starting tight end, said on Tuesday. “You’re sitting on the bus like, ‘Yeah, these people are crazy.’ It’s three hours before the game, and they’re hooting and hollering.”
That ride was done in silence last season. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the only fans allowed inside Kinnick Stadium for Iowa’s four home games were family members of the players and coaches.
Saturday’s season opener against Indiana will be different. Approximately 2,500 tickets remain for the game, and a loud Kinnick is something the players can’t wait to see.
“It was an eerie feeling last year,” LaPorta said. “Our families were there, so maybe there were 200-300 people in the stands. I’m really excited this year, to see what we can do in front of 70,000 people.”
It isn’t going to be totally normal. There is still a pandemic, and there likely will be many fans wearing masks in the crowd.
Still, it will feel like Kinnick always has in the past on game days.
“It will feel and look sold out when we get there on Saturday,” athletics director Gary Barta said.
There are changes, though. Concession stands will be cashless — credit and debit cards only. Only mobile tickets will be used. Fans are asked to download their tickets early, and arrive early.
It’s a normal 12-game schedule, not the 8-game Big Ten-only slate of last season. Iowa has seven home games, and Barta said season ticket sales are comparable to 2019, the last time there was a full house at Kinnick.
“The focus is on the task at hand,” said quarterback Spencer Petras, whose last start in front of fans was in high school in 2017. “But it will be fun to throw a touchdown, and hear the crowd cheer again. That’s something we missed last year.”
The silence of stadiums last season, other than the artificial crowd noise, was something the players remembered on Tuesday.
“The fake crowd noise was, I guess, OK,” Petras said, laughing.
“You got used to it at the end of the season,” center Tyler Linderbaum said. “It was kind of like the old high school days.”
Asked when it felt strange, running back Tyler Goodson smiled.
“First game,” he said. “Going out there for the first game, it was like, ‘Ugh, there’s nobody out there.’”
It won’t be that way on Saturday.
“I think the energy is going to be really high,” Goodson said. “Having people in the stadium brings different energy than no one in the stadium. I think the nerves will definitely be up there.
“If the crowd’s there, the energy is there.”
The Hawkeyes’ schedule has been the same as it was in the pre-pandemic days — 15 days of spring practice, summer workouts, and then fall camp.
“It’s good to be back in the flow,” Goodson said. “Back to normal.”
The bus trip in, LaPorta said, will be just like old times.
“It does feel like a normal game week,” he said. “There’s no pauses or stops. We’re cruising right into it.”