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IOWA CITY — Iowa players like Kaevon Merriweather grew up dreaming of playing in marquee college football games.
“It’s something you watched on Saturdays,” said the Hawkeyes’ starting strong safety. “You see, growing up, all the prime-time games — No. 1 vs. No. 2, No. 3 vs. No. 4, top five matchups.”
Now Merriweather and the Hawkeyes have the opportunity to play in one of those games as they take on No. 4 Penn State Saturday.
“The chance to actually play in one and having the entire country watching you is just a surreal moment,” Merriweather said.
Head coach Kirk Ferentz has repeatedly downplayed the importance of rankings before November.
“I think you know how I feel about rankings in October and September,” Ferentz said Tuesday. “We just happen to be 5-0 right now, so do they. That's the way it is.”
Ferentz recognizes how special a top-five matchup at Kinnick is, though. Games like Saturday’s are “what you want to play for,” as he sees it.
“It's fun when the chips are on the table,” Ferentz said.
It’s been a while since so many chips have been on the metaphorical table at Kinnick Stadium.
Saturday will be the first game between two top-five opponents at Kinnick Stadium since 1985, when then-No. 1 Iowa beat then-No. 2 Michigan.
None of the players on Iowa’s roster were alive at the time of the game. Running backs coach Ladell Betts was only 6 years old.
Ferentz, 30 at the time, was Iowa’s offensive line coach. He still remembers the environment at Kinnick for that game.
“The energy just when you walk in the stadium that day, it’s rare,” Ferentz said.
A matchup of this magnitude comes with a lot of excitement from the Hansen Football Performance Center’s doors.
“It’s hard not to hear the outside noise,” LaPorta said.
That noise comes from a variety of places.
In some cases, it’s from excited family members.
“It’s been kind of crazy,” Merriweather said. “My phone’s definitely been blowing up a little bit from my family members about how crazy this is going to be.”
Merriweather has been tempering that excitement.
“I’ve been trying to tell them, ‘Like listen, listen, we’ve still got to play the game,” Merriweather said. “’I can’t be too excited.’”
Social media can be another source of that although defensive end John Waggoner said his team “shouldn't have too much time to just be scrolling on social media if you're doing your schoolwork and watching film.”
Other times, that noise might involve ticket requests.
“People you haven't heard from in five years are calling about tickets,” Ferentz said. “Nobody is mad about it, but that's just the way it goes.”
Quarterback Spencer Petras has “a lot of friends coming” to Saturday’s game. It’s pretty clear what his top priority is, though.
“I’m not really talking to (them),” Petras said. “I’m pretty focused on the game.”
Ferentz, 66, has been scouting Penn State for a long, long time.
Growing up in Pittsburgh, he saw a lot of Penn State football since he was “basically in elementary school.”
“The story doesn't change a heck of a lot,” Ferentz said. “A lot of things that were true when I was young are still true right now.”
The personal connection aside, he is keeping the focus on “trying to get better on a daily basis,” just like it’d be for any other game.
Looking back at the last time he was a part of a top-five game at Kinnick, he doesn’t remember his boss Hayden Fry treating the Michigan game much differently from any other game.
“He was pretty consistent most of the time,” Ferentz said. “The one game he was gigged for was Texas obviously. … He handled it well. He just kept everything steady and tried to keep everybody where they should be.”
Now it’s Ferentz’s turn to keep calm ahead of another marquee matchup in Iowa City. He knows it’s only the sixth week of the season, and he has reminded his team of that too.
“Nobody is going to announce a bowl matchup next week,” Ferentz said. “I know they do the prognostications weekly, I get that, but they don’t really count. They are paper money, Monopoly money.”
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