IOWA CITY, Iowa - Kirk Ferentz has coached 200 games at Kinnick Stadium, but there’s one game that stands out. No. 1 Iowa 12, No. 2 Michigan 10. October 19, 1985.
“I’ll remember that as long as I live, just because of the environment that day,” said Ferentz, Iowa’s offensive line coach that day. “Not everybody gets that chance.”
But here we go again. No. 4 Penn State comes to Kinnick Stadium to face No. 3 Iowa Saturday. It will be an electric atmosphere, like it was in 1985. It will be witnessed by a sellout crowd and a national television audience.
This is the sixth time Iowa has played in a game between two Top 5 teams. And it is the biggest game since Bo Schembechler brought his Wolverines to town 36 years ago.
“We just happen to be the guest at the party this year,” Ferentz said.
Now in his 23rd season as the Hawkeyes’ head coach, Ferentz has preached a “one game at a time” mantra to every one of those teams. His current players are quick to give the media the party line when given the chance. Because they live by it, and believe in it. This week brings a level of hype that is rare, and it challenges the Hawkeye players to remain focused on the task at hand.
“It’s hard not to hear the outside noise,” tight end Sam LaPorta said. “But we’re focused on the opinions and people who are inside the (football) building. We’re focused on the game plan this week, and how we’re going to execute it.”
It’s been 15 years since Marshal Yanda played for the Hawkeyes. But the eight-time Pro Bowl selection at offensive guard for the Baltimore Ravens knows what Ferentz and his staff have told the current players this week to keep them focused on the job at hand. “The biggest thing is don’t make this game any bigger than just another game on the schedule,” Yanda said. “Everything is one day at a time. Don’t care who we play next week. Everything is in the moment.”
Ferentz knows the hype train can derail the focus of his team, especially the younger players.
“These are two good teams,” he said. “No debating that. Enjoy that part. But we have a lot of football ahead of us right now. This is a really important game because first of all it’s the next one up. That makes it the most important game.”
He didn’t dodge the attention this game will receive when he spoke to his team on Monday.
“Coach Ferentz said to enjoy it,” quarterback Spencer Petras said. “It will be a game that will be remembered probably for the rest of our lives. But again, it’s still a football game. That’s a point he made also. Because if you make it more than that it’s not going to help you play well in that football game. And in order to win, you have to prepare really well and you have to win during the week. Right now, that’s our focus.”
Petras said that sticking to a routine of practice, class, meetings and sleep is important this week and every week of the season. Without that routine, he said it would be easy to get distracted. He admits that’s easier said than done.
“Especially the younger guys,” Petras said. “I don’t find it hard anymore. I know the value of practice and the process and executing the best we can. I know all our older guys do. Our job is to teach the younger guys to make sure they’re doing the same.”
Like many of his teammates, defensive back Kaevon Merriweather spent last Saturday watching college football. The Indiana-Penn State game had his undivided attention.
“I’ve been excited for this game since watching that one on TV,” Merriweather said. “Especially when I saw that Oregon lost. I understood it might be a top four matchup, and what the environment will be like.”
He’s excited to play in that environment. But he said he’s spent the week concentrating on the big picture.
“I think that’s something we preach in our building,” Merriweather said. “Just make sure we focus on what we’re doing, make sure we’re staying with our game plan, and keeping the outside noise outside.”
Defensive end John Waggoner said the noise around this game means nothing. “If we can uphold our team standards of being tough, smart and physical, doing it every game and doing it consistently, we think we’ll be happy with the outcome,” he said. Center Tyler Linderbaum can’t wait for this challenge.
“This is kind of what you dream of,” he said. “Coming to Iowa, and getting the opportunity to face such a great opponent. We’ve earned this by winning five straight games. We’re going to have to come out ready to play.”
“These are the games you look forward to as players, and fans look forward to them as well,” Linderbaum added. “We’re going to have to win the week with our preparation, and how we practice is going to be important for this game.”
Focusing on the controllables, he said, is the foundation to what unfolds Saturday.
“Every time a game like this comes up you have to appreciate the opportunity,” Linderbaum said. “I think the biggest thing is don’t let it become a distraction. Enjoy the moment. Come Saturday, you’ve got to put it all on the line and play your best.”
Sticking to the routine that Petras spoke of is something Ferentz considers very important in the days leading up to Saturday.
“What we’ve got to do is make sure we don’t leave the door open this week because we’re answering those texts, trying to get Johnny Smith tickets, all that stuff,” Ferentz said. “We have to stay in our routine and practice and do the work you have to do.”
Ferentz has told his team what to expect on Saturday. Another 1985 Iowa-Michigan moment, if you will.
“There’s certain games you can feel when you walk in the stadium, especially when the crowd gets in there,” he said. “That part is really neat. You’ve got to be prepared for that.”
Ferentz knows the crowd will be an asset, but it won’t matter if his team is not ready to play.
“You better keep your eyes on the target,” he said. “The target is all about what you’re doing, your performance. The more you get wrapped up in the other stuff, the harder it will be to be successful. That’s the trick, trying to block all the other stuff out.”