Leistikow: This week, 'Protecting Kinnick' not just for Iowa players

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. — North Dakota State is coming to town, and Iowa football players seem to have their game faces on in preparing for the five-time defending FCS national champions.

“The best team we've faced thus far,” running back LeShun Daniels Jr. said Tuesday.

Hawkeye fans should be taking their team’s third opponent seriously, too.

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Well before Saturday’s 11 a.m. kickoff at Kinnick Stadium, a green-and-yellow swarm of fans will be here. And they’ll be ready to make some noise.

That’s a lock.

The Fargo, N.D., school quickly sold out their visiting-team ticket allotment (4,000, including the band). Bison backers who didn’t get those tickets have gobbled up the extras, either through Iowa or on the secondary market.

Only a few-hundred singles remain. It’ll likely be a sellout — 70,585. Iowa’s average attendance in two nonconference games a year ago was 57,746.

North Dakota State fans travel well. And they'll gladly make the trip to Iowa City this weekend to see their Bison face 11th-ranked Iowa.

“There’ll be 10,000 of their fans,” Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard said, “but hopefully 60,000 of ours. Hopefully we can drown out their noise.”

Gene Taylor, the No. 2 in Iowa’s athletics department who spent 13 years as North Dakota State’s athletics director, estimated 7,000 Bison fans in Kinnick on Saturday. That might be low.

“There will be a lot more (Bison) fans here Saturday,” Taylor said, “than there were from the Iowa State contingent (in Saturday's 42-3 Iowa rout).”

North Dakota State’s fan base fervently follows its team. Pilgrimages of 20,000 to Frisco, Texas, (just north of Dallas) for the FCS Championship Game have become an annual Bison tradition.

Taylor compares the lust for Bison football there to what Hawkeye fans did in overtaking downtown Indianapolis for last year’s Big Ten Championship Game — but on a smaller scale, of course.

“They party hard, but they’re good partiers,” Taylor said. “They don’t raise hell. They’re just really good, solid fans that care passionately about their program, just like we do at Iowa.”

(A Texas cop on duty to monitor the Bison fan base on FCS title week once told Taylor, “You’re the nicest drunk people I’ve ever been around in my life.”)

In 2006, about 30,000 Bison fans poured into the Metrodome to see North Dakota State’s first-ever game against a Big Ten program. The Bison lost to Minnesota, 10-9, but they won the next year in Minneapolis. That 2007 win left an impression on Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz.

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“And it was not a fluke,” Ferentz said. “They’re a really well-coached outfit.”

You probably know by now that North Dakota State has won five straight games against FBS competition. All on the road.

It’s no wonder these fans travel. As Ferentz pointed out, North Dakota State has a 20-0 record in the FCS playoffs the last five years — perfection in high-stakes, win-or-go-home games.

And you can bet North Dakota State players are amped for probably the best Power Five team they've ever faced.

Iowa’s nine-game home winning streak will be put to the test.

“Our biggest thing is protecting Kinnick,” defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson said of a mentality that was reinforced after back-to-back home losses to end the 2014 regular season. "Just playing really well in Kinnick.”

A festive home crowd is important. To illustrate that Tuesday, Ferentz recalled his very first game as a 26-year-old Iowa assistant.

Sept. 12, 1981: Iowa 10, Nebraska 7 — the turning point for Hawkeye football after 19 straight losing seasons.

“There was no question there was a home-field advantage that day,” Ferentz said. “And that was a big upset for our team. We followed it up with another one two weeks later (20-7 over UCLA).”

After a 10-11 run at Kinnick from 2012 to 2014 followed by a sharp dip in season-ticket renewals, Iowa has restored some of its once-renowned home-field edge — the one that produced 22 straight wins from mid-2002 to mid-2005.

"Are we there yet? No," Ferentz said. "We’re trying to climb. We’re trying to build something."

There's obviously a correlation that Iowa's best teams perform well at home. Just like that 1981 team did.

But "Protecting Kinnick" this week isn't just for the players. Hawkeye fans need to bring their A-game.

Thousands of Bison fans are about to begin their 538-mile drive from Fargo. And they're not coming here to lose. They hardly ever do.

“They want to see them come in here and try to get the win,” Iowa cornerback Desmond King said. “Their fans are going to be pumped. They’re playing against the Iowa Hawkeyes. Our fans vs. their fans. That’s what it’s going to be.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.