Iowa football: Penn State hype can help flip page, but Hawkeyes can't overload on Saturday's thrills

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — In college football’s toe-the-line era of clichés and coach-speak, one can appreciate straight-talk answers when they bleed through the recorder. Ihmir Smith-Marsette didn’t waver from giving an honest assessment.

When asked if he’s always handled the noise well leading up to a massive opportunity, Iowa’s leading wide receiver came clean.

“Ahhh, nah — no, no,” said Smith-Marsette, shaking his head emphatically. “I used to let the big-time stuff (affect me when there’s a hyped game ahead). Like ‘All right, let’s go. I’ve got to do extra stuff.’ But as I’ve grown, that stuff really doesn’t matter. Because at the end of the day, the game has still got to be played.”

Iowa quarterbacks coach Ken O'Keefe walks down the tunnel with players before a NCAA non conference football game against Middle Tennessee State, Saturday, Sept., 28, 2019, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa.

Consider that entire quote a microcosm of what No. 18 Iowa (4-1, 1-1 Big Ten Conference) has ahead of itself as it looks to transform Michigan frustration into Penn State jubilation. Stacking one showdown on top of another should help remove any lingering disappointment from the Hawkeyes’ Big House flop.

Yet there are numerous outside elements that come with Saturday’s 6:44 p.m. tilt against the No. 9 Nittany Lions (5-0, 2-0).

The intensity revs up when the sun goes down at Kinnick Stadium. Iowa fans got the nighttime kickoff they wanted, and there’s no coincidence Saturday’s affair has been sold out for a month. ABC had its pick and wanted the Hawkeye trek. Throw in the all-gold alternate uniforms’ debut, and Iowa City remains buzzing despite the now-blemished record.   

Those aspects inevitably seep into the program’s walls; complete blinders are almost impossible. That energy. in moderation, can help re-juice a squad coming off a crushing loss. But Iowa is adamant about a focused approach, not a distracted one.

“If you’re a competitor, you know it’s going to be a big game — especially everyone talking about it,” Iowa safety Geno Stone said. “But at the same time, you’ve got to stay level-headed and can’t play the game before it’s actually played. You have to be cool throughout the week, be able to practice well and then get ready to play when it’s 6:44. It’s kind of hard, but then it’s not at the same time.

“From here on out, it’s Big Ten games, so you know you’ve got to flip the page fast and get on because you don’t want to dwell on the past. I feel like it really helps a lot, especially this game, knowing it’s a night game in Kinnick, ABC, Penn State, top-10 team. So you’ve just got to be ready for this.”

Similar seesawing dissections permeated Iowa’s weekly media gathering.

It’s likely easier for some to lock in fully this week than others. Whether it was Wisconsin last season or Ohio State and Penn State in 2017 — three recent home games that featured a raucous later-in-the-day crowd, a highly ranked foe or alternate digs — veteran contributors like Smith-Marsette, Stone and others have been through the chaotic Kinnick drill and the thrills that come with. Many Hawkeyes are in that boat. It’s another big game coming off another big game — in a career full of them.

Some who spoke Tuesday don’t own that experience. Defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon hasn’t ‘Swarmed’ into this kind of environment yet; neither has redshirt freshman Nico Ragaini as a recognizable asset. Those two, along with true freshmen, transfers and newbie contributors, are in the teeth of it for the first time.

“I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily easy,” Nixon said. “Just being on a big campus, yeah people come up to you all the time, ‘Hey, we’re going to beat Penn State — we’re going to beat Michigan.' Things like that. And we just tell them we’re going to go out there and play our hardest and do what we can. Given the foundation and identity that Iowa has, the coaches tell us all the time not to listen to the noise or the hype. Every day, hearing that over and over again, it’s built into your brain now. You know what you’re going to say when people ask you and things like that.”               

Added Ragaini: ““It’s the opinions that matter to you that actually matter. Some of the things are negative — some positive — and it all honestly goes in one ear and out the other, as awful as that sounds. You just have to stay locked in. Especially here, there are so many fans who are always saying what they have to say. You can’t let that stuff get to you — even if it’s good stuff — and you’ve just got to be locked in.”

Some who might consider that a given, look back at Smith-Marsette’s open recollection of his younger self. It’ll be a tight-rope walk for some Hawkeyes this week as they weigh using Saturday’s intensity as a Michigan flusher without becoming hype-engulfed.

Those who can balance everything will be better for it.

“I do care,” said Smith-Marsette, updating his big-game approach, “but when it’s game time, I just want to lock in and do what I’ve got to do.”  

Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.