Leistikow: Inside Iowa's locker room during lightning delays, before Cy-Hawk win
AMES, Ia. — Conquering another football team is one, very difficult, physical challenge.
Dealing with the mental strain of two lightning delays that totaled 2 hours, 55 minutes Saturday was quite another in a Cy-Hawk showdown for the ages at Jack Trice Stadium.
“For baseball, it’s easy,” said Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz, who can find an analogy to America's pastime for just about anything. “They play cards. They’re used to rain delays.”
In football? How to manage 75 guys in cramped locker-room quarters during a weather delay doesn’t come up in coaches’ meetings.
Iowa had to wing it.
Then go win it.
“We knew it was going to be a dogfight,” senior linebacker and captain Kristian Welch said after Iowa’s resilient 18-17 victory over Iowa State, the program’s fifth straight in the series and fourth straight in Ames. “And, sure enough, it was.”
The first delay was a relatively brisk 49 minutes, including a 15-minute warmup period.
The second delay, which cast doubt on whether the game would be played at all as heavy rain doused the grass playing surface, stretched 2 hours, 6 minutes. Iowa players were left to mentally deal with not only the uncertain resumption but the fact that the Cyclones had been the dominant team and were leading, 7-3, early in the second quarter.
Even Ferentz, 64, had no formula for this. While he, too, waited, his mind started to wonder if he should have the team start practicing. He eventually dismissed that thought and instead preached rest and recovery.
What did unfold in the Iowa locker room was a scene of sandwiches, serenity and sleep.
Star defensive end A.J. Epenesa enjoyed an Italian sub; staff members sped around town to pick up about 60 sandwiches (according to Ferentz) from three Ames shops for hungry players who hadn't eaten since about 11 a.m.
“I was about to die of starvation,” Epenesa said.
Safety Geno Stone said the second break was especially productive for digesting defensive coordinator Phil Parker’s desired adjustments. The Cyclones were moving effectively behind Brock Purdy’s right arm and had the Iowa defense on his heels.
“We just talked about coverages that we’d blown,” Stone said, “and (ways) to adjust.”
A lot of players were content to pop in their earbuds and listen to music. Offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs didn't want to take off his knee braces, so he sat there, in full uniform, for nearly 2 hours and tried to relax while consuming a few protein bars and a Powerade.
Some players even slept, if you can believe it.
Cornerback Michael Ojemudia described a scene of several players who scoped out flat surfaces and were snoozing ... in the middle of the most-hyped Iowa-Iowa State showdown maybe ever. Ojemudia found a spot in a trainer’s room and slept for about 45 minutes.
“It really was hard because you’ve been building up the stress all day,” Ojemudia said. “I felt better after the second delay. I’m really glad we got to rest for a little bit.”
Everybody was free to deal with the situation in their own way, but with a uniform objective: to never lose focus on the task at hand.
Easier said than done, especially for the quarterback.
Nate Stanley, the Hawkeyes’ most important player, might not have been able to handle this kind of delay a few years ago.
There he sat, knowing that he hadn’t played well in the early going. He had overthrown open receivers a few times, halting Iowa’s momentum. But he has learned to flush mistakes more quickly over the years, and he wasn't flustered for long. He told himself not to replay the game in his head.
“Tried to be as calm as I could — get what I needed done, but then just kind of let it go,” Stanley said.
MidAmerican Energy Field was hardly a paradise for the offense, with wet grass making things tricky. But when Iowa needed big throws (or runs), Stanley delivered.
A clutch 27-yarder to Ihmir Smith-Marsette on third-and-22; a huge 14-yard called draw on third-and-11 to set up Iowa’s only touchdown; a 28-yard beauty to Brandon Smith that set up what turned out to be the winning points on Keith Duncan’s 39-yard field goal.
These are the kinds of games Iowa needs to win to have a special season.
A year ago, the Hawkeyes suffered four excruciating close losses.
One of them, against Wisconsin, happened in part because of a fluky punt-return gaffe that flipped the momentum.
On Saturday, the Hawkeyes got one back — with Devonte Young recovering a punt that bounced off an Iowa State player’s back with 1:29 to play.
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Don’t look now, but they’ve won three close ones in a row — over Nebraska on a last-second field goal; over Mississippi State in the Outback Bowl; and now this.
“Tomorrow, we’re going to watch the film and we’re going to see the game was not good,” Epenesa said. “We didn’t play very well — we just didn’t do things the way we usually do it.
“But we did work hard. We did scratch. We did fight. Even though it wasn’t pretty, we still got the win.”
Yes, the Hawkeyes are 3-0, with a much-needed bye week on deck before returning to action against Middle Tennessee State. Then the Big Ten Conference gauntlet begins again, Oct. 5 at Michigan.
Mentally strong teams win games like these.
They'll need to win more. But Saturday, the Hawkeyes sent a message, through nearly three hours in the locker room and three on the field: They're not going to be put away without a fight.
“Nobody got discouraged, even though we had some discouraging plays," Ferentz said, before offering one final baseball reference — "Kept swinging the bat and kept playing.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.