SPORTS

Defending Kinnick has been easier said than done

But Hawkeye players know you'll go crazy if they give you something to work with

IOWA CITY — When Iowa players first walked into Kinnick Stadium for the 2014 season, it was mild, sunny and March.

For the players, Kinnick is a lot more than where they play games. It’s their football world. They do speedwork here in the spring. They put on the full gear and click clack across Evashevski Drive, walk down about 100 stadium stairs and jog onto the Kinnick field for practicing and ultimate measuring of how much they see the field when you’re in the bleachers and the team on the other side is wearing different colors.

Kinnick is their constant proving ground. It’s a setting for great joy, deep heartbreak and because they are players and it is a stadium, it’s a place that raises their pulse.

“This is our home,” senior linebacker Quinton Alston said. “Before we had the indoor facility, that’s where we warmed up for our workouts. That’s where we practice almost every day. We go out there and do speed drills and conditioning in the summer.

“There’s been a lot of blood, sweat and tears in that stadium.”

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz hammers into his players’ heads the idea of “defending Kinnick.” That’s been easier said than done the last few seasons.

The Hawkeyes (7-4, 4-3 Big Ten) go into today’s season finale against Nebraska (8-4, 4-3) needing a win to stay above .500 in their last three seasons at home. Iowa stands 10-10 since 2012 going into today’s game and is 16-11 going back to 2011, when Iowa was 6-1 at Kinnick. The 2012 season was a lost 4-8 record that included a 2-5 mark at Kinnick. Last season, Iowa improved to 4-3, and now this year it stands at 4-2 going into the Heroes Trophy game.

The 10-10 the last three seasons is a stark contrast to Iowa’s recent home success. The Hawkeyes’ longest home winning streak (22 games) spanned from 2002 to 2005. The Hawkeyes have had 11 undefeated home seasons, including 2003 and 2004.

“If we’re playing good football, we’re playing a good football team, we’ve always had great fans here,” Ferentz said. “It’s our job to provide the juice. That’s what our job is. If we’re playing well on the field, then in sports, if you’re playing well, good things happen beyond it.”

Part of the reason this was a topic this week was the undeniable energy Kinnick generated in last Saturday’s wrenching 26-24 loss to Wisconsin. On a crucial third-and-8 in the fourth quarter, Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave was hit with a delay-of-game penalty because it was too loud to hear yourself burp. Still, Wisconsin converted the third-and-13, scored and went on to win the game.

That fact didn’t go unnoticed by the players.

“Toward the end of the game, it really got rocking,” strong safety John Lowdermilk said. “It just sucks we couldn’t get off the field on third down. It was an awesome experience, but I wish we could’ve done better.”

The 10-10 record also wishes Iowa could’ve done better. A look at the Kinnick losses since 2012 includes consecutive losses to rivals Iowa State (2012 and this season) and Wisconsin (2012 and ‘14). There was that nasty 32-31 loss to Central Michigan of the Mid-American Conference in 2012. The Hawkeyes went into last season’s game against Michigan State with a 4-1 record and fell 26-14 to a comparable program that went on to win the Rose Bowl.

If the Hawkeyes today want the same voltage they got last Saturday out of Kinnick, they know they have to throw you a bone.

“They’re going to be ready to get amped up, we have to do something to help them get there,” quarterback Jake Rudock said. “A 0-0 game and defense is playing lights out, yeah, fans will be ready to go, but we have to create that spark and the fire is just naturally going to be lit.”

You probably remember last November when offensive line coach Brian Ferentz, a former Iowa offensive lineman who knows what an electric stadium means to plays, tweeted “I know that the stadium experience is lacking but this team needs your support — do it on your own. Best fans in the country!” He backed up that statement in April and said winning has a lot to do with stadium experience. You’re not going to notice stale popcorn today if the Hawkeyes beat Nebraska.

It’s not like the last four seasons have been devoid of excitement.

Iowa’s last victory over a ranked opponent was at Kinnick against No. 13 Michigan in 2011. Also in ‘11, the Hawkeyes fought back from a 27-3 fourth-quarter deficit for a 31-27 win over Pitt. Last season’s comeback from a 21-7 halftime deficit against Michigan had to have kept you warm during the coldest game in Kinnick history.

“It was an awesome atmosphere last Saturday, I thought it gave us an edge,” offensive tackle Brandon Scherff said. “The loudest I think I’ve ever heard it was last year in overtime against Northwestern (17-10 Iowa win). That was probably the loudest I’ve ever heard [Kinnick].”

You’ve noticed the record and you’re not exactly happy with the quality of opponent Iowa has invited into Kinnick. Iowa’s average home attendance dipped to 67,125 last season, the school’s lowest since 65,798 in 2003. This was after the 4-8 in 2012 and ended a streak of eight consecutive seasons of Kinnick attendance more than 70,000. However many of you show up today, it won’t be enough to drastically tweak the 67,614 Iowa has averaged so far this season.

As far as opponents go, next year could be more of the same. Right now, it’s a debate on which team could be Iowa’s hottest home game. Your top choices are Pitt on Sept. 19 or Minnesota on Nov. 14.

That’s next year’s worry. What’s in front of coaches, players and fans this week is Nebraska. Against Wisconsin, the crowd was responsible for a 5-yard delay of game penalty.

“It’s up to us, it’s completely up to us,” senior running back Mark Weisman said. “He [Ferentz] has said that to us multiple times. It’s definitely up to us. In the first half [last week], I don’t know if we gave them much to work with, but we did in the second half and it was a great atmosphere.”

They felt you last week. Literally.

“I felt the energy. That’s what kept me going, that’s really what kept me going,” defensive tackle Carl Davis said. “I didn’t feel like I was even tired. It was great having Kinnick behind us. When you have the stadium behind you and you make a play and you see everyone screaming, it’s electric.”

They need you today. They don’t need you as much on offense, however. There was one instance near the Wisconsin end zone last week when Rudock had to shush the crowd.

“When we’re on the field, we’re trying to calm them down a little bit,” Weisman said, “but it was loud, it was definitely loud. That and probably the Pittsburgh game my freshman year, when we came back, those were probably the two loudest at Kinnick since I’ve been here.”

And they know they need to give you something to work with.

“We have to take pride in protecting our home, regardless of who comes into town and regardless of the high-profile guys they’ve got,” Alston said. “You’ve got to protect your home. That’s going out there and sacrificing everything you’ve got.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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