116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — As Zach VanValkenburg walked into Lucas Oil Stadium in July and looked around the 70,000-seat stadium, a thought crept into his head.
“We’re going to be back here,” VanValkenburg said.
He wasn’t referring to another Big Ten Media Day either.
“You want to play in there,” Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum said. “You want to be in there with your buddies.”
More than four months later, Linderbaum and his buddies will experience his wish with Saturday’s Big Ten championship game against No. 2 Michigan (11-1).
The 13th-ranked Hawkeyes (10-2) have plenty to savor. Saturday will be second chance to play for a Big Ten title in Indianapolis since the game’s inception in 2011.
Safety Kaevon Merriweather “couldn’t stop smiling” on Sunday. He kept repeating one thing.
“I probably said it like every 10 minutes,” Merriweather said. “Man, I’m really about to play in a Big Ten championship.”
The last time Iowa was playing in a Big Ten championship game, fifth-year senior Jack Koerner was still in high school and watched the game from his Des Moines home.
“I think the roof got blown off my house when that (75-yard touchdown) happened,” Koerner said.
Merriweather, from Belleville, Mich., didn’t see much of the Hawkeyes before that.
“I didn’t know who Iowa was,” Merriweather said. “I knew who Michigan State was.”
The former changed quickly.
“When Iowa went up, I was like, ‘Wow, like this team is actually pretty good,’” Merriweather said. “They kind of got my respect that day.”
Six years later, he’ll be playing in Lucas Oil Stadium as Iowa has a chance to gain more respect on a national stage.
Kicker Caleb Shudak has noticed an added level of energy in practices beyond what one would expect in a “routine” week where it can be easy to start “going through the motions.”
"Even though we’re practicing the same amount of time this week, the energy is there,“ Shudak said. “Everybody couldn’t be more excited.“
That comes with a balance, though.
“There’s not many teams practicing in the country right now,” Linderbaum said. “Enjoy the moment, and enjoy the opportunity that we have. But at the end of the day, we’re going over there to win the sucker.”
A win against Iowa would likely place the Wolverines in the four-team College Football Playoff.
“They’ve got fantastic athletes across the board and a veteran coaching staff, so it’s going to be a challenge,” Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell said. “We know what we’re up against.”
Las Vegas knows it’s going to be a challenge, too.
Caesars Sportsbook has Iowa as a 10.5-point underdog. FanDuel Sportsbook says the Hawkeyes are an 11.5-point underdog.
“I don’t think a lot of people have us winning this next game,” Linderbaum said. “A lot of people think we shouldn’t even show up, so that’s a little chip on our shoulder.”
ESPN’s Football Power Index gives the Hawkeyes a 23.5 percent chance of winning.
VanValkenburg prefers the underdog status.
“I honestly think it’s an easier situation than earlier in the year being ranked No. 2,” VanValkenburg said. “Obviously that's something you try not to pay attention to, but you’re going to hear people talking about it. So when someone tells you you’re 10-point underdogs, it makes you work a little harder.”
Iowa has not been a double-digit underdog this season like it is for Saturday’s game. But the Hawkeyes were a long shot to make it to Indianapolis.
After suffering back-to-back, double-digit losses to teams unranked at the time — first a 17-point loss at home to Purdue and then a 20-point loss at Wisconsin — ESPN’s FPI gave Iowa a 21.7 percent chance of winning the West.
“I don’t think anyone lost faith,” Linderbaum said.
Ferentz put a quote in the locker room from Virginia men’s basketball coach Tony Bennett after his loss to 16-seed UMBC.
“If you learn to use it right, the adversity, it will buy you a ticket to a place you couldn't have gone any other way,” Bennett said, per the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Since then, Campbell said the team focused on “taking that adversity and using it the right way.”
“It brought something more out of this team, which I'm excited to see,” Campbell said.
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