IOWA CITY — I haven’t spent time with all 130 FBS college football teams, but I’m confident Iowa is one of the dullest.
Hold the torches and pitchforks. That’s said about their demeanor, not their style of play, though that isn’t always a rocket ride to the stars. The Hawkeyes button down things they had already buttoned down. Their team colors should be earth tones.
“Break the Rock” is the most-controversial thing an Iowa player can get away with saying.
Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa and Tristan Wirfs were unavailable to the media covering the team Tuesday, a week after coach Kirk Ferentz asked local reporters not to question the two about possibly entering the NFL draft next year. No distractions, please.
As if either would have said anything Tuesday other than “All I’m worried about is helping my team get ready for Nebraska.”
If keeping opponents’ bulletin boards blank isn’t in an Iowa player’s bloodstream when he gets to Iowa City, it sure is when he leaves. Yet, you can’t stop others from perceived slights, no matter how imaginary.
What caught our attention here in Iowa, as noted by The Gazette’s Jeff Johnson earlier this week, were these words from Nebraska linebacker Colin Miller:
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“They don’t really like us. ... I mean, it sucks, those guys not respecting us. They come into Lincoln and think they can win this with ease, that this isn’t a real rivalry, you know?”
To hear the Hawkeyes tell it, they are overflowing with respect for Nebraska. It’s just that they place no opponent above the 11 others.
“Every game is a big game, to be quite honest with you,” said Iowa senior linebacker Kristian Welch.
“If the opponent has to motivate you in order to play your best football, you’re in it for the wrong reasons.”
“l’m going to practice harder for this team, this (other) team I’m going to lay back?” asked Hawkeye defensive end Chauncey Golson. “That’s not how we operate here. That’s not how anybody should operate.”
So Friday’s game is nothing personal, just business, no matter how it’s portrayed by the outside world. Yet, the darnedest thing happens once players leave Iowa and move into the Land Beyond Kinnick. They see ... rivals! They make ... insults!
“When we beat the Huskers for the 5th year in a row, we’ll have to start calling Nebraska a Hawkeye State!” former Hawkeye star linebacker Chad Greenway tweeted Sunday, with an accompanying video in which he said “Is it fair to say to say that after we win this game for five years in a row it can’t be called a rivalry anymore? You bet it is.”
Then there was ex-Iowa tight end George Kittle on ESPN’s SportsCenter With Scott Van Pelt Sunday night, shortly after he did a lot to help his San Francisco 49ers crush the Green Bay Packers. Van Pelt poked the bear, asking Kittle to address the Iowa-Nebraska game.
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Kittle alluded to Greenway’s comments, adding “Honestly, I don’t even want the state of Nebraska. We’re just going to go in there, win that game, make it five in a row, and just let it be.
“I’m looking forward to Iowa going in there and whuppin’ them.”
Of the many Hawkeyes who are impactful in the NFL, it’s precious that the one with the highest profile is the flamboyant, footloose Kittle. He’s an Iowa outlier in that regard, yet he’s pure Hawkeye in the way he represents the program with his superb and physical play.
The rivalry stuff really is overcooked, however. Watch the Memorial Stadium playing field after Friday’s game ends and see the genuine respect between the foes. They know what it took to get on those teams and that field, what it takes to play that game. They know heart and will are spread across all teams.
The rest of us will pump this thing up as if there is true hatred between the two sides. The winners can lay claim to the losers’ state, or their souls. This has to be something far greater than a mere athletic competition, doesn’t it?
Then the Big Ten West championship will be decided the next day in Minneapolis.
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