Leistikow: Time to end narrative that Iowa doesn't gear up for Cy-Hawk game

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa football under Kirk Ferentz has long used the mantra "Break the Rock."

Since Sunday, second-year Iowa State coach Matt Campbell has unveiled a not-so-subtle #MoveTheRock hashtag in his tweets.

Welcome to Cy-Hawk week.

And while we’re all here, let’s take a sledgehammer to another rock in the Iowa-Iowa State conversation: this notion that the Hawkeyes don’t care as much about the Iowa State game as their counterparts to the west.

Iowa head football coach Kirk Ferentz has come under occasional criticism for a perceived lack of interest in the annual Iowa-Iowa State football game in comparison to his Cyclone counterparts. Not so, says the 19th-year Hawkeyes football coach.

From his opening statement to follow-up questions at his weekly news conference Tuesday, Ferentz made sure that message was received loud and clear.

“This is certainly a big week for us,” he said.

And more: "It's energizing, certainly, for our players, our coaches, alums, everybody that's involved."

Ferentz even used the word “insulting” to refer to the notion that Iowa doesn’t care enough about this annual series, which has been neck-and-neck (nine wins, nine losses) since he became Head Hawk in 1999.

“I don't know, I guess I haven't jumped up and down,” said Ferentz, who has won three of the past four against the Cyclones, including by a resounding 42-3 count last September. “Have to do some jumping jacks or something, be a little bit more demonstrative out there. When you win, what you do is great. When you lose, not so great. I think (the not caring) is just kind of part of that narrative.”

So, rest assured, Hawkeye fans, the message from the top is that you’re not the only ones jazzed up for this Saturday’s 11 a.m. game at Jack Trice Stadium.

Sure, the Iowa players are well-trained to avoid providing bulletin-board material that’ll wash up on Cyclone shores. But of course they care ... a lot.

There were plenty of the anticipated milquetoast quotes coming out of Tuesday’s interviews.

“It’s one game at a time. Every week is a different week,” said offensive lineman Ross Reynolds, who grew up in Adel: a 50/50 town of Cyclones and Hawkeyes.

But go down the Hawkeye roster — which, Ferentz pointed out, has 23 Iowans on the two-deep and 57 overall — and it’s an easy exercise to pinpoint extra motivation.

Let’s start with Iowa’s two best defensive players: senior linebackers Josey Jewell and Ben Niemann.

Jewell, the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week, said he “barely” got recruiting interest from Iowa State.

“Walk-on stuff. Something like that,” Jewell said. “I went there for a visit, and they stopped talking to me.”

To be fair, Iowa almost blew this one, too, waiting until just before signing day to offer Jewell a scholarship. Otherwise, he was headed to Luther College.

But a guy who has made a career out of finding motivation in even the smallest slights has also observed the Cyclones’ internal countdown clock that reads “BEAT TEAM OUT EAST” — another new Campbell tactic in how he sometimes references the Hawkeyes.

“Yeah, that’s interesting,” Jewell said with a wry smile. “I don’t know what else to say about it.”

Niemann, who was nearly as outstanding as Jewell in Iowa’s 24-3 opening win vs. Wyoming, is from Sycamore, Ill., but the Cyclones have long been part of his life.

His father (Jay Niemann, Rutgers’ defensive coordinator) played at Iowa State. His mom went to Iowa State. So did his grandparents.

His choice to play football for the Team Out East?

“I got a ton of crap for it. Especially from my dad, him playing there,” Niemann said. “Obviously, a lot of my family doesn’t have a lot of love for Iowa.”

An obvious guy for the Cyclones to recruit, right?

“I went on some visits,” Niemann said, “but I never got an offer.”

Think Niemann might have a few messages to send in his final Cy-Hawk showdown?

There are obvious stories of why this game means something extra — even if they don’t come out and say it — to Hawkeyes up and down the roster.

The older brother of Matt Nelson, a defensive lineman from Cedar Rapids, went to Iowa State. You think Cy-Hawk week doesn’t stir things up?

“I got him to wear Hawkeye shirts the past few years,” he said, “so hopefully his allegiance is with the Hawkeyes.”

Kicker Miguel Recinos of Mason City spoke of how this rivalry “spans generations.”

Defensive end Sam Brincks of Carroll, another 50/50 Iowa town, added: “With any rivalry game, there’s more emotion that comes into it.”

Even the team’s star running back from Newark, N.J., feels extra spring in his elusive step.

When Akrum Wadley was on Iowa’s scout team as a freshman in 2013, he knew nothing about the Cy-Hawk rivalry. Then he was introduced to the extra emphasis that senior linebacker Anthony Hitchens (now with the Dallas Cowboys) placed on the game.

“The amount of hits he was giving me (on Cy-Hawk) week,” Wadley said, “you never forget those things. This week means a lot to Coach. He stresses every game is important. But this game is really important.”

And if anyone needs an extra reminder that something special besides a trophy is on the line, they’ll get the message Saturday morning after the team buses arrive at Jack Trice Stadium.

To get to the locker room, Iowa players must traipse down a path lined with mostly Cyclone fans.

“All you see is red and yellow, red and yellow,” Wadley said. “All kinds of fans, some of them drunk, doing this and that.”

Jewell estimated it’s about a 100-yard walk, with fans “right on top of you.” Some players crank up their headphones louder to block out the noise. Others turn down the volume.

“Just because they want to hear stuff,” Jewell said. “And that’s totally fine. If that motivates them. But I just turn mine up a little bit.”

Take the emotions out of it, and this is going to be tough game for Iowa.

Ferentz and Iowa players were consistently complimentary Tuesday of the Cyclones, and they should be. This is probably the best Iowa State team that Iowa has faced in this series since at least 2012.

And while the slightly-favored Hawkeyes will have to be at their best to win, they also understand they can’t get swept up into the rabbit hole of emotions and Twitter games.

“We do things the way we do,” Ferentz said. “Fans have a lot of opinions about a lot of things, which is great. I'm glad they are passionate and interested. We try to do things in a consistent way and from my vantage point, every game is really important.”

That approach might be why they’ve sometimes sounded like emotionless robots when it comes to this game.

But, once and for all, that doesn’t mean they don’t care.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.