Leistikow: Hawkeye fans can't wait for the Wisconsin night game. Iowa's players must.
IOWA CITY, Ia. — The buzz was, well, buzzing through the Hawkeye football fan base Monday.
The Sept. 22 Big Ten Conference opener against Wisconsin would start at 7:30 p.m.
Kinnick night game?
And Gus Johnson’s on the call?
Yes, yes and YES.
It’s on, and no doubt, it’ll be crazy-loud inside Kinnick Stadium in two Saturdays. Hawkeye fans are already salivating at a chance to take down a highly ranked, national power for the third year in a row under the lights.
Michigan in 2016.
Ohio State in 2017.
No. 6 Wisconsin is certainly on notice.
I'll predict this: It'll be the loudest game in stadium history.
Before you scoff, consider what Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz — you know, the guy who has led this program for the past 19-plus years and served for nine years here as a Hayden Fry assistant — said about the Kinnick crowd at Saturday’s 13-3 victory against Iowa State.
“Saturday, particularly in that fourth quarter ...” Ferentz began Tuesday, “It’s been loud down there on the field before. But it really seemed louder than ever.
“I thought it was as good as I’ve ever heard in Kinnick. And that covers 28, 29 years now.”
Considering Ferentz was here for 12-10 over Michigan in 1985 … for Banks to Clark to beat Purdue in 2002 … for the 33-7 rout of Wisconsin to clinch a Big Ten championship in 2004 … for the walk-off, 14-13 slaying of No. 3 Michigan in 2016 …
That’s saying something.
Credit, in part, the refurbished north end zone, which at the top of the (to-be-completed-in-2019) scoreboard now towers 117 feet above ground. The three-tiered structure is noticeably steeper and more imposing than before — and has created booming acoustics.
Tim Brando, the Fox announcer who called Saturday's game before 69,250, called it a top-10 national venue after his first trip to Kinnick.
“The remodeling of the end zone made it a little louder when the fans get going on third down,” senior free safety Jake Gervase affirmed. “That’s something we notice. That’s something we look forward to and try to make it an edge this season.”
Of course, a defense that stormed an in-state rival (holding the Cyclones to 188 total yards) helped, too.
But which comes first, the chicken or the egg?
Iowa players certainly felt a boost from the home fans against the Cyclones, especially as the game wore on.
Iowa State ran just two plays in Iowa territory after its opening drive.
“Usually when you’re on the field, you’re in your zone, you can kind of block everything out,” Gervase said. “There were a couple third downs where I’m reading my keys, you’re getting ready to go, but at the same time I hear everybody going nuts.”
Booming chants of “I-O-W-A” circulated the Kinnick grandstands for most of the final 4 minutes, 47 seconds of game clock after the Hawkeyes took a 10-point lead that — with that defense — was insurmountable.
“One thing I understand about Iowa fans,” Ferentz said, “is they appreciate good defense.”
No question, the matchup with Wisconsin is the Iowa program’s biggest game since the Big Ten Championship against Michigan State in 2015 — also the last time Johnson, a fan favorite for his blissfully untamed reactions to clutch plays, called a Hawkeye game.
The winner gets the inside track for the Big Ten West title; the loser probably has to win out to even have a shot at an early-December trip to Indianapolis to face the Big Ten East champ.
But, of course, this is probably past the point of this column where it should be mentioned that Iowa does have another game between now and then. In fact, it’s another night game in front of a sold-out Kinnick crowd — Saturday’s 6:30 p.m. matchup with Northern Iowa.
Iowa players can't afford to look ahead like the fans and media can.
Fans are fired up about all-day tailgating, about the possibility of slaying a giant, about Gus.
Players have to think this week about every intricacy of UNI's personnel and formations.
Hawkeye players Tuesday were fully aware of previous program scares against the FCS Panthers. There's even a painful FCS result that many of them experienced.
Junior Amani Hooker was a freshman in 2016 when Iowa thrashed Iowa State at home one week … then lost to North Dakota State, 23-21, at home the next.
Weird stuff can happen.
“It was a terrible feeling,” Hooker said. “You’re supposed to win. We felt like we should’ve won the game.”
How to maintain proper focus this week to set up the showdown with Wisconsin?
“Understand that it’s another game,” Hooker said. “Don’t worry about the name of the team. Treat it like we’re playing Ohio State.”
Hawkeye players played it cool Tuesday. They barely acknowledged hearing that the Wisconsin game is a night game.
“Right now, we’re focused on UNI,” offensive lineman Ross Reynolds said. “It’s awesome that it’s going to be a night game this week."
Being 3-0 is a must for the Hawkeyes to truly have the special season they desire.
Gervase spoke about the dominance shown by Iowa's defensive line as a sign that has given the Hawkeyes confidence to do big things.
"It could be a special year," Gervase said. "But at the same time, it’s Week 3, and we’ve got to take it one week at a time.”
In short: Block the outside noise this week ... and play in front of louder-than-ever Kinnick noise, with a lot at stake, the next.
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.