The Iowa coach thinks maybe the only thing that went right in Happy Valley was winning the coin toss. Chad Leistikow/The Register
IOWA CITY, Ia. — To everyone involved, there’s something special about a night football game at Kinnick Stadium.
“Just the atmosphere, the electricity that’s in the stands,” Hawkeye offensive lineman Boone Myers said. “You can’t replicate it. It livens you up.”
The bright lights glistening off Iowa’s black jerseys and helmets provide an almost magical visual for Iowa center James Daniels.
“When we wear white gloves or something, it kind of looks blue,” Daniels said, grinning ear to ear. “That feeling, it just — I really can’t explain it. But it’s a really cool feeling.”
For senior linebacker Bo Bower, a Kinnick night game offers nostalgia.
“It’s like Friday Night Lights all over again,” Bower said of his high school days at the Little Rose Bowl in West Branch.
But here’s the big reason Kinnick night games carry extra voltage: It’s because of you, the fans.
And the Hawkeyes are saying they need you — whether it’s 67,000 or 70,585 of you — in full, vocal force Saturday as fourth-ranked Penn State comes to town.
The vaunted Nittany Lions are expected to roll. As of Tuesday afternoon, the defending Big Ten Conference champions were listed as a 12½-point favorite in an ABC-televised game set to kick off at 6:42 p.m. CT, with A-team announcers Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit on the call.
They were in the booth at the most recent Kinnick night game, too, last Nov. 12 when undefeated and third-ranked Michigan came here as a 24-point favorite.
Hawkeyes 14, Wolverines 13, as viewership peaked at more than 10 million in the fourth quarter.
You, the fans, made a difference.
“Especially when their offense is out there and it’s third down, they’re loud as crap,” middle linebacker Josey Jewell said Tuesday. “So the guys can’t hear anything and they can’t check their plays very well. I think definitely our fans played a critical part in that (Michigan) game.”
Saturday marks just the sixth time since Kirk Ferentz’s third season that his Hawkeyes are an underdog by more than a touchdown at home.
Of those five games, Iowa won twice outright (Michigan last year, Penn State in 2008) and hung tough in two others (Wisconsin in 2014, Nebraska in 2012).
There’s something about night games at Kinnick.
There’s also something about being an underdog that plays well to a blue-collar Hawkeye roster stocked with two- and three-star prospects and walk-ons.
“It might be the nature of the program, the type of guys we recruit,” defensive end Parker Hesse said. “It might be easier to embrace that role. That’s something going into any game, you’ve got to believe you’re in the fight.
“Right now, certainly everybody believes this is a winnable game. If we do what we can do, we’re going to come out on top.”
The 3-0, unranked Hawkeyes know they'll have to play a complete game to have a chance Saturday.
The same goes for the fans, even if every seat isn’t sold out. As of Tuesday, the UI didn’t specify the number but said a few thousand tickets (going at $95 a pop, the most expensive single game in Kinnick history) remained.
This is going to be a tough game. Penn State, no doubt, is on an incredible tear.
It’s won 12 of its last 13 games, including a 41-14 rout of Iowa on Nov. 5 that Hesse said “embarrassed” the Hawkeye program, and has scored 33 or more points in 10 straight.
But there’s something notable about these past 13 Nittany Lions games. Not once in that span have they entered an environment like they'll see Saturday.
The only true road games in the bunch were in 2016 at sterile stadiums — at Purdue, at Indiana, at Rutgers.
The last time they were facing a renowned crowd? It was exactly 52 Saturdays ago, Sept. 24, 2016. The result in Ann Arbor, Michigan: Wolverines 49, Penn State 10.
You can make a difference.
But the players know they have to take care of their part, too.
For as much electricity that was in the air, there was a common thread in the Kinnick wins against Penn State in 2008 and Michigan in 2016.
The Hawkeyes were hanging around at halftime.
Down 13-7 at the break in 2008, the crowd remained involved until Daniel Murray’s field goal with 1 second left in a 24-23 win.
Last year, Iowa got to within 10-8 at halftime vs. Michigan on Akrum Wadley’s fourth-and-goal touchdown catch. The crowd was fiery for the final 30 minutes, then stormed the field after Keith Duncan’s walk-off game-winner.
Keeping the fans engaged, Jewell said, is "just starting the game off right. Not allowing big plays right away” — a nod to Penn State taking a 7-0 lead just six plays into last year’s game.
“Hopefully, (forcing) three and out a couple times in a row early in the game, to try to get that mood right.”
The Hawkeyes are 4-0 the past two seasons under the Kinnick lights, each of those wins coming in memorable fashion.
Pittsburgh 2015: There’s no forgetting Marshall Koehn’s 57-yard field goal through the North end-zone uprights.
Minnesota 2015: Blackout uniforms, and the school’s first-ever 10-0 start.
Iowa State 2016: 42-3, the biggest rout of Iowa’s in-state rival in the Ferentz era.
And, of course, Michigan 2016.
“I think anybody that's human, their juices will be going a little bit on Saturday just because of the environment,” Ferentz said. “There seems to be a little bit of extra electricity. Then it's our job to keep generating it.”
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.
Hawkeyes as big home underdog
The Iowa football team has been a home underdog by more than a touchdown only five times since after the 2000 season, and is 2-3 outright in those games. (*-night game)
Year Opponent, spread Result
2016 Michigan, -24 Iowa 14, Michigan 13*
2014 Wisconsin, -9.5 Wisconsin 26, Iowa 24
2013 Wisconsin, -9.5 Wisconsin 28, Iowa 9
2012 Nebraska, -14.5 Nebraska 13, Iowa 7
2008 Penn State, -7.5 Iowa 24, Penn State 23*