MADISON, Wis. — Defensive ends A.J. Epenesa and Chauncey Golston are two of Iowa’s better football players. When the Hawkeyes blanked Northwestern heading into last week’s bye, the two talked about how practice set the tempo that beat the Wildcats.
“I think every defensive player will tell you, the tempo we had in practice this week was unmatched from any other week,” Epenesa said. “That bled into the game. That’s just the new standard and that’s what we’re going to do week to week.”
Actually, that’s what Iowa has done from week to week and year to year under head coach Kirk Ferentz.
The Tuesday and Wednesday practices during the week are physical. There’s live engagement and tackling. Gasp. Yes, tackling.
And, yes, this does sound kind of crazy ...
“It feels a little bit crazy until you go into the game and things carry over,” safety Jack Koerner said. “You’re not missing a tackle because you tagged someone off instead of thudding them up and taking them to the ground. You do see that it carries over, but, at first, ‘Why are we tackling? This could get someone hurt.’ But it carries over and makes us more effective during the game. I think everyone has bought into that.”
It doesn’t matter if they have. Ferentz has and that’s that.
“That’s how we practice,” Ferentz said. “You play the game in pads, you practice in pads. We try to be smart when we get into November. We just came off a week where we were really trying to pull back and let the guys get recharged.
“I think it’s important this week that we fit our pads and we’d better get them fit really well and really tight because these guys are going to help fit them on Saturday, I know that. So, we’d better be ready to go.”
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Yes, it’s Wisconsin week. It’s time for the annual game with a farm animal as a trophy. Well, for the No. 18 Hawkeyes (6-2, 3-2 Big Ten), it’s the first game that involves a farm animal trophy. Minnesota and the bronze pig come after the Hawkeyes face No. 13 Wisconsin (6-2, 3-2) for the Heartland Trophy (a bull) this weekend.
The practice thing is serious, from top down. You know this about Iowa, you know it’s embedded like a mission statement.
“You’ve got to practice well to play well,” defensive coordinator Phil Parker said. “Since August, I can’t complain with how these kids have gone out and practiced.”
This was Tuesday and Parker talked about that particular practice.
“Today was a hard practice,” he said. “We were getting after short yardage day. I thought the kids really played hard. We’re tackling, which not a lot of people do nowadays, but if you’re going full go, you don’t get hurt. When you slow down, you get hurt.”
There’s a whole bunch of macho football run-up that could go here, but let’s just cover the ground this way: This is a game that will have you reaching for Biofreeze just watching from home on TV.
That’s what Iowa prepares for. Not only this week, but every week. Sure, practice comes with some whiteboard dry erase, but the live drills on Tuesday and Wednesday are live drills.
“We kind of emphasize ‘Practice how you play,’” freshman center Tyler Linderbaum said. “It all starts with our Tuesday and Wednesday practices. You really have to lock it in mentally and physically.
“We pride ourselves on that. How we’re going to win the game starts early in the week and we know that.”
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You’ve already heard from a safety and he said how physical practice has been and has to be in their minds. Wide receivers get thrown in the wood chipper, too.
“The way our offense is set up, receivers have to block,” junior Ihmir Smith-Marsette said. “There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it. If you’re a receiver in this offense, you have to block safeties who are 6-2, 215 or 220.
“It’s definitely been physical the past two weeks. You have physical players in physical matchups. Teams don’t back down. It’s the Big Ten.”
Yes, Iowa is aware this has come at a cost. This season, the Hawkeyes have lost at least five players for games because of practice injuries. Guard Cole Banwart was lost for the season with a torn ACL after the Penn State game. Defensive tackle Brady Reiff missed three games after suffering a sprained knee going into Iowa State.
Guard Kyler Schott is set to return this week after missing five games with a foot injury suffered in practice going into Middle Tennessee State. Safety Kaevon Merriweather suffered a foot injury after the opener. Tight end Nate Wieting missed last week and is doubtful this week after an undisclosed injury going into the Northwestern game.
The players don’t back away from this mentality. If they did, they probably wouldn’t be at Iowa.
“It’s going to be in the game, so it’s better to prepare like that,” Koerner said. “I think it’ll help us bring our best stuff.”
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