The announced attendance at Kinnick Stadium for the Northwestern-Iowa football game last Saturday was 1,432. Family members of the two teams’ players and personnel accounted for most of it.
The attendance at Frank “Muddy” Waters Stadium at Hillsdale College in Michigan for the Tiffin-Hillsdale Great Midwest Athletic Conference football game on Nov. 3, 2018, was 1,634. That was Zach VanValkenburg’s last home game as a Hillsdale Charger.
VanValkenburg transferred from that Division II school to Iowa after that season and got to play in the full Kinnick experience with full houses last year. But here he is as a senior, and he’s back to competing in front of Hillsdale-sized crowds.
“Last year was something to get used to for me,” starting defensive end VanValkenburg said. “These last two weeks have been like playing on the road in Division II. I’m used to that environment.”
His teammates, especially his fellow seniors, are not. Last Saturday? It wasn’t really a Kinnick game even though it was.
You can point to a number of things on the field that would have given the Hawkeyes a victory over Northwestern instead of a 21-20 loss were they slightly different. Also in the might-have-been category is how the game would have turned out had it been attended by almost 70,000 noise-making fans.
“You’ve just got to stay hyped up on the sideline, guys bringing energy and juice,” Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum said. “And that’s what you’ve got to do because fans aren’t going to be there for you.”
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Playing at home isn’t as big a difference-maker in football as basketball, but everyone would rather do it. One visiting player who’s thrown off a tiny bit by crowd noise, a home team that feels a little more confident and comfortable because of the fans’ love, an official who subconsciously hesitates to throw a penalty flag against the home team in a key moment — any of those things could have provided a game-changing moment last week.
Adjusting to change is part of life, yes, but it still had to be jarring for the Hawkeyes to come out of their tunnel shortly before game time and find all those empty seats instead of a sea of supporters that have been known to give opponents claustrophobia.
Three years ago this week, Iowa crushed third-ranked Ohio State in Kinnick, 55-24. The Hawkeyes caused that avalanche, not their fans. The plays Nate Stanley, Noah Fant, Josh Jackson, T.J. Hockenson and so many of their teammates made were how that rout was made. But the fans kept roaring for more, more, more, and maybe that helped the Hawkeyes keep the pedal pressed.
Home teams are 6-7 in the Big Ten through two weeks. Michigan State, Iowa’s opponent Saturday, got upset at home by Rutgers two weeks ago. The Spartans turned around and, without contending with 110,000 fans at Michigan Stadium, went to Ann Arbor and shocked Michigan last Saturday.
“We’re used to having home-field advantage,” Michigan safety Daxton Hill said. “Just having the fans on our side hyping us up. That was a big difference.”
Ohio State probably would have won at Penn State last Saturday even with 110,000 people in Beaver Stadium trying to influence things in favor of the Nittany Lions. It would have been a little tougher, though.
“A White Out at Penn State on Halloween weekend would have been absolutely insane,” Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth said.
Instead, the stadium was a ghost town. Cardboard cutouts of fans in the stands aren’t frightening.
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The Hawkeyes have to be happy with the knowledge they won’t have to contend with a crowd during their Nov. 21 game at Happy Valley. But they’d swap a full house at Penn State for the same in Kinnick, normally one of the most intimidating places in the Big Ten for visitors.
“It is going to be what it is, pretty quiet,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said about this season’s game atmospheres.
“If we were going into a hostile environment, you obviously want to be prepared for that. This year that won’t be as big a factor, and hopefully it’s the last year we ever have to talk about that.
“But all that being said, that’s not what the game gets decided by. It can be a crutch if you want it to be a crutch. Hopefully nobody in our building is looking that way, and it’s all about what we do on the field, it really is. It’s about our production on the field and how we play, the energy we have.”
Iowa is 0-2 because it hasn’t played well enough to win, and the victors deserve credit. Without the energy of the spectators, however, it’s a slightly different game this fall, one that may actually favor performance and strategy more than ever.
If Iowa wins Saturday, it keeps a faint flicker of hope alive for a dreamy storybook season, which would be sweeping its final six games and finding a tiebreaker or loophole that gets it to the Big Ten championship contest.
If it loses? Empty stadium, emptier season.