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IOWA CITY — Winning on the road takes a special quality.
Sure, winning away from the comforts of home also requires the same basic tenets of winning anywhere — focus, execution, etc. To be able to do those basics while also dealing with a sometimes-strange, definitely-hostile environment, said Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz, requires a level of maturity that’s not easily attainable.
To win consistently on the road, as the Hawkeyes have done for the last season-and-a-half, winning eight in a row away from Kinnick Stadium? At least in Ferentz’s world, that means maturity plus routine.
“They’ve got to understand what you’re trying to get accomplished and stick to the routine. Don’t get distracted, whether it’s Manhattan out the window a couple weeks ago or this week will look a lot different as we’re landing and looking out the window,” Ferentz said on Tuesday. “So all that stuff really doesn’t matter. We’re going to play a football game and it’s no different than if we’re going over to Kinnick. And once the game gets going, you have to be focused on that game and not the environment. And teams that can do that historically will be better and have better results.”
Players thrive on the road individually for different reasons.
Some feed off the hostility of the opposing crowd, as C.J. Beathard said, “that fuels you when it’s you against a few thousand people.” Some love the camaraderie that comes with traveling with what becomes a family. Others still take more than a little enjoyment in handing someone a loss in front of their crowd, and even more getting to sing their fight song on someone else’s turf.
Most Iowa players, when asked, didn’t go into specifics on the places they loved or hated going. The prevailing response was that of what their coach preached: not letting an opinion form because focus was elsewhere. But a few did chime in, and cornerback Desmond King was one. He threw some fuel on an old rivalry in doing so, too, saying, “Iowa State, out in Ames. Their crowd really gets into the game and are hostile and things like that. But that makes you be locked in and focused and ready to play.”
Offenses have the toughest time on the road because of that hostility. Defenses, oftentimes, don’t feel that same effect while on the field. Linebacker Ben Niemann pointed out opposing offenses get the benefit of a fairly quiet field as the home crowd isn’t trying to disrupt anything.
Niemann said communication improves on the road, believe it or not. That’s showed in Iowa’s defensive output during the road winning streak, that started at Illinois in 2014, continued all of last season and into the first two road games this season. In those eight games, the Hawkeyes held teams to 200.9 yards per game passing and 118.4 yards per game on the ground.
“The road wins are obviously tougher to get because of all the circumstances. I think it says a lot about us,” Niemann said. “In Kinnick, it’s actually harder for us (on defense) because the fans get so much louder. So sometimes on the road it’s kind of nice when it’s a little bit quiet and you can hear the calls and stuff like that. It switches a bit. Obviously we love our fans getting hyped, it helps us out, but it’s nice to hear what your safety is telling you sometimes.”
To ask Ferentz, even with all the success and for all the above reasons, “we don’t have this figured out by any stretch. But we do have a routine that we do and try to stick with it.”
If they don’t have it figured out, they’ve fooled a few people, at least.
Consistency has long been the hallmark of the Ferentz-led program — at times both to the enjoyment and chagrin of those who follow the program — and to ask the Hawkeyes’ opponents, that quality in what they do on the field is what makes the Hawkeyes so good away from home.
Ironically enough, though, Ferentz actually credited a change to that practice routine — and specifically how his players handled that change — as a not-insignificant reason for road success.
Maturity and consistency are the hands that feed each other.
“Last year we changed our whole practice routine. In retrospect, it worked out really well,” Ferentz said. “Also in retrospect, one of the observations I made, and I shared this with our team this year, it worked well because we had a really mature team. They stayed and didn’t let any changes really flap them too much. They just kept pushing forward, and they handled it really well.
“Having an off day at the end of the week is totally unconventional, and to me, if you don’t have the right kind of players, it can be really dangerous. But I think we all had a trust with our guys.”
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