For Hawkeyes Render and Fant, matchup with Cornhuskers is personal
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The Iowa football players officially turned their attention toward Nebraska at 6 p.m. Saturday at the conclusion of their game against Illinois.
They could have let their minds wander at halftime, though, considering they already had a five-touchdown lead en route to a historic 63-0 pounding of their rival to the east.
Now, it’s the rival to the west that will close out the season — and the Kinnick Stadium careers for at least 13 Hawkeyes. Kickoff is set for 11 a.m. Friday.
Iowa senior center Keegan Render is among those itching to play in this game. He has aunts and uncles and cousins galore who are avid Cornhusker fans. His extended family is from Missouri Valley, a town of 3,000 just on the Iowa side of the Missouri River.
Karen and Terry Render, Keegan’s parents, moved the family to Indianola when he was young.
“They got kind of tired of it when they were growing up,” Keegan said of the Nebraska football passion that surrounded them.
“I’ve heard plenty in my whole lifetime about the Cornhuskers,” Render said after Saturday’s victory ran Iowa’s record to 7-4 overall, 4-4 in Big Ten Conference play. “They cheer for me, of course. I’ve got cousins that will still go to Nebraska games. It’s nothing against them. I understand. But, yeah, this game’s just a little more personal to me.”
Iowa has defeated Nebraska in each of Render’s three seasons as an active member of the Hawkeye roster. Last year, that score was 56-14; the year before, it was 40-10. Render started at left guard in each of those pummelings and helped pave the way for a combined 577 rushing yards.
Iowa’s seniors have already completed career sweeps over rivals Iowa State and Minnesota. They’ll be more than ready to try to lay waste one more time to a surging Cornhusker team that has won four of its past five games under first-year coach Scott Frost, Render vowed.
There’s an Iowa junior playing in this game with a little extra incentive as well. This could also be tight end Noah Fant’s last time playing at Kinnick Stadium. The Omaha native was a preseason all-American after catching 11 touchdowns as a sophomore. He is generating plenty of early buzz as a potential first-round NFL Draft pick, what with his 6-foot-5 height, 42-inch vertical leap and knack for getting in the end zone, something he has done seven times again this season.
“I’m not really sure. I haven’t really talked to the coaches about it,” Fant said Saturday when asked if Black Friday was going to mark his Hawkeye swan song.
“That’s (being mentioned as a first-round NFL selection) a pretty good situation to be in. You can say, 'Maybe I want to go higher. Maybe I want to be a top 10 pick' or something like that — there’s no way to know that until after the season.”
What Fant does know is that the Cornhuskers (4-7, 3-5) haven’t forgotten the two-touchdown torching he put on them in Lincoln a year ago. He gained 116 yards on just three catches in that one. He also had a catch for 10 yards against Nebraska while playing in Kinnick two years ago as a true freshman.
“I’m hoping to do the same thing this year,” Fant said of a two-score repeat. “So, hopefully, I’m put in the position to be able to do that, and we’ll see what happens there.
“It’s always nice to beat the hometown team.”
Fant has been hearing from people back home ever since he chose Iowa over the Cornhuskers in August 2015. It was seen as a recruiting misstep for former Nebraska coach Mike Riley, who couldn’t land one of the top players in his own backyard. Riley was fired the day after last season’s rout by Iowa.
“It kind of died off as the years have gone on,” Fant said of the chatter he hears from Nebraska. “This year, I expect it to be there a little bit. But I think everyone kind of knows that I’m here and Nebraska’s doing their thing and I’ve got my thing going for me.
“They’re going to come out and play, and we’re going to have to settle it on the field.”