IOWA CITY — Most every year in December, if things didn’t end up with the Big Ten’s golden football, Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz reiterates the program goals.
Compete for championships and play representative, high-effort, smart football.
Last December, after finishing the regular season 7-5 with a great victory over Ohio State serving as the yin and a disaster at Wisconsin serving as the yang, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz got a little more specific.
“We’re all chasing Wisconsin,” Brian Ferentz said. “If you’re in the western half of our conference, you’re chasing Wisconsin. I know this, if you want to win a Big Ten championship, the road goes through Madison. I think we saw that this year.”
Iowa was held to 66 total yards of offense at Camp Randall Stadium. The Badgers won the West title for the third time in four years. They lost in the Big Ten title game, but the West has been Wisconsin red since Legends and Leaders days, when the Badgers twice repped the Leaders Division.
There have been seven Big Ten title games. The Badgers have been in five.
The road that goes through Madison makes a stop at Kinnick Stadium this week. The Badgers are wounded, sitting at 2-1 after last week’s upset loss to BYU in Madison. The Hawkeyes have checked off a few things and fixed and improved a few more during their 3-0 start.
Both schools are 0-0 in the Big Ten West. Yes, it’s just the end of September, but this is a championship-level football game.
Maybe it’s the Big Ten West championship. Maybe.
Instead of going into long soliloquies of the weight of everything, most Hawkeyes acknowledged Tuesday that, yeah, if you want to be a championship team, it’s time to play championship-level football.
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“Last year was last year,” tight end T.J. Hockenson said. “We’re not even playing an opponent is our mindset. We’re playing ourselves and we have to be at a championship level.”
But the Hawkeyes said the lines in the script, too.
Senior free safety Jake Gervase even smiled when he said this.
“The next game is the biggest game of the year,” he said.
The words are hollow. The players' cars, trucks and mopeds parked in the lot a little longer after practice on Tuesday said it all. It’s high alert.
If you need to have the stakes laid out for you, here’s fullback Brady Ross.
“I don’t think we’re necessarily talking about it as just another game,” he said. “It’s a Big Ten game, which is very important. It’s a game against a very good football team. The road to Indy goes through Madison. It has for years.
“We’re not naive to that. They’re a team we have a great amount of respect for.
“Our goal is to be a championship-level football team. Anything less than that is unacceptable. We have an opportunity Saturday night to play a championship-level football team.”
This is the kind of game in which you can earn stripes. Put up good video against the Badgers, and you suddenly have an NFL resume. Now last season, former Iowa cornerback Josh Jackson had already put up numbers that were “skipping the final year of college for the NFL” good, but the two pick-sixes at Camp Randall couldn’t have hurt.
“It’s nice to go against those guys because you know where you stand,” Hockenson said. “You know how you are as a blocker, you know how you are as a tight end. You’re playing against NFL guys, really. At the same time, we’re trying to hold to our scheme and our fundamentals. That’s what we’re relying on. We work on that day in, day out and that’s what’s going to show up.”
You know what else is going to show up, right? Kinnick.
With last week’s win over Northern Iowa, the Hawkeyes are now 12-5 in night games at Kinnick. The Hawkeyes have won six of the last seven, including 2016’s victory over then-No. 2 Michigan and last year’s narrow loss to then-No. 4 Penn State.
But it’s more than whether or not the lights are on. It’s Kinnick.
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“I’m not into ‘woo, woo,’ energy in the air stuff, but there’s something there,” Ross said. “There really is. We have the best fans in the country. The fans really, really care about Iowa football. There’s an energy in the air and it’s a special opportunity every chance you get in Kinnick.”
Hey, it’s Wisconsin week. If you think you’re not in this, what are you doing planning your gameday attire on a Tuesday to make sure you have the right color to stripe Kinnick on Saturday night?
You’re in this. Look what you did to Ohio State. You gave Urban Meyer a test run in woeful news conferences.
“Kinnick Stadium, it’s got its ‘Kinnick Curse’ or whatever you want to call it,” former Ohio State center Billy Price said after the game.
They did it and you helped.
“The fans are super loud and super into the game, and I think that poses a lot of problems in and of itself,” said quarterback Nate Stanley, who never, never, never, never, never again needs to be reminded he’s from Wisconsin. “It’s just fans being good fans. There’s no other way to describe it. There’s an added intensity and electricity when you get out there.”
The road to the Big Ten West title begins in Kinnick on Saturday night.
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