Hawkeyes ready to take fearless approach to Wisconsin
IOWA CITY, Ia. – A consistent theme of 2015 Iowa football has been about unity and leadership. It may sound a tad hokey on the outside, but it is fueling results – and optimism – on the inside.
Head coach Kirk Ferentz even made this confident remark during the outset of Tuesday's weekly news conference: "I think we've got a good football team right now."
On Friday, the 4-0 (and unranked) Hawkeyes will ride a bus to Madison, Wis., in advance of what could amount to their biggest test of the season: Saturday's 11:01 a.m., ESPN-televised showdown against No. 19 Wisconsin (3-1) at Camp Randall Stadium.
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No offense to the Kinnick Stadium faithful, running back Jordan Canzeri said, but there's going to be something special about trying to ruin an afternoon for most of the 80,321 hostile fans.
"Yes, we love to play in Kinnick. We love our fans. We love the atmosphere," Canzeri said. "But we do enjoy away games because of the fact that we're all we have."
As quarterback C.J. Beathard and free safety Jordan Lomax put it, it's 70 vs. 80,000. And that gets their competitive juices flowing.
"The only people you have there with you are the people that travel on that bus," Lomax said. "When we go into that stadium, just us 70 players together on the sideline, we know we can count on each other to get the job done."
Iowa's mantra since January and the 7-6 disappointment of 2014 has been to block the outside noise. That's not an easy thing to do – Beathard acknowledged Tuesday running into more bandwagon fans "that were kind of bashing us but now they're pulling for us."
Ferentz, too, recognized the outside noise growing louder, and the players (who with class obligations spend more time mingling with the general population than bunkered-down coaches do) are responsible for shutting it out.
"It means people are interested, which is great. But you've really got to be focused," Ferentz said. "I think the team for the most part has been focused on the right things thus far, but each week is a different challenge, a unique challenge, and right now there might be a little of that going on. We've just got to be careful and understand we've improved because we've been focused on the right things."
The national narrative about these Hawkeyes are that they haven't proven anything yet, despite the 4-0 start with a rivalry win over Iowa State and a last-second victory over a Power Five visitor in Pittsburgh. Fifth-year senior center Austin Blythe can buy that theory.
"(4-0) doesn't really mean anything," Blythe said, "if we don't open up conference play with a good win against a good team."
When that bus pulls out of the Iowa Football Operations Center parking lot, the us-against-the-world mentality will reach full force. That's how it was three weeks ago vs. a sellout crowd at Jack Trice Stadium, where Iowa bused to Ames and secured the Cy-Hawk trophy after a 31-17 win. Receiver Matt VandeBerg epitomized that effort with a grass-stained No. 89 jersey and first-down gestures after key receptions.
"It's a hostile environment," VandeBerg said with a grin. "You make sure you win a game, and let them know when you get a first down."
The challenge this week is steeper. Wisconsin owns a 10-game home winning streak, and its .910 home winning percentage (71-7) since 2004 is second nationally to Boise State. But the Hawkeyes seem to be impervious to that and the fact that they're nearly a touchdown underdog.
They believe in each other and, as Ferentz said Tuesday, when you take the field in a hostile atmosphere, unity "is everything."
"We're a really confident team. We've got a lot of trust in each other," Beathard said. "I think we've continued to get better each and every week. As long as we continue to do that, we'll have a good season. The ceiling just keeps getting raised each and every week as you see guys getting better and better. No one's where they want to be right now, but we just keep getting better."