Inside Iowa football's challenge of appreciating the moment — and beating Penn State

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — For an Iowa football program usually residing in the spotlight's peripheral rather than right in the middle, handling the elements of Saturday's monumental showdown is a crucial balancing act.

Excitement beamed from several Hawkeyes' faces this week as questions rolled in about the top-5 status both Iowa (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten Conference) and Penn State (5-0, 2-0) currently bear. No. 3 vs. No. 4, no matter which poll you pick. Anything matching a Kirk Ferentz era-best, which the Hawkeyes ranking third does, is worth absorbing for historical importance and general rarity. Most college football players go their entire careers without sniffing an opportunity like this one.

And that's precisely why the Hawkeyes must stop any embellishing right there. Clichés fly around like an Iowa defender with a massive build-up like this, but navigating the Penn State week exactly like Kent State or Colorado State is truly valuable in handling what's ahead. A legacy-shaping chance can't become a wasted one before the game even starts.

"You better keep your eyes on the target," Ferentz said this week. "The target is all about what you're doing, your performance. The more you get wrapped up in the other stuff, the harder it is to be successful. That's the trick, trying to block all the other stuff out."

For what it's worth, much of the week's Iowa dialogue included warnings like this one. Veteran players know nothing posted on social media, debated on TV and radio shows or said in-person by passing fans will make a bit of difference come Saturday afternoon, when the opening kick sails through a sold-out Kinnick Stadium. Even with raucous fan support arriving all day, these Hawkeyes understand a distracted week of preparation will only send them home disappointed.

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Still, there are human emotions behind every facemask and headset. Saying this likely memorable matchup requires no alternate approach, and actually following through with that in the days prior, are two different jobs. The latter is significantly harder than the former. Completing such a task — even with the insulation practice, teammates and the Iowa football facility provide — is an individual effort more of the day than not.   

"The noise and all that is something you've just got to stay away from, especially at night," defensive back Kaevon Merriweather said. "You just have so much time chilling and relaxing, you could end up on your phone for like two or three hours seeing God knows what. You've just got to have a mental check with yourself and do everything you're supposed to be doing.

"Just understanding, especially once you get into the gameplan and knowing that you have to go out there on Saturdays and actually perform, it's a little bit easier to lock in on how much you have yo focus throughout the week. Coming in as a freshman, or if you're not playing, it's easy to be like, 'Oh, No. 3 versus No. 4! This is exciting!' You're pumped up, texting all your friends and family. You're not even really focused on what's going on throughout the week because you're so excited for Saturday. But once you're older and involved with the gameplan, that shift comes naturally a little bit."   

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Any focus flaws will get exposed quickly by a Penn State squad also hunting for national legitimacy. As one of five undefeated Big Ten teams, the Nittany Lions can take a large leap toward Indianapolis and beyond if they strut out of Kinnick with a win. Penn State's resume looks a lot like Iowa's, which makes Saturday's chance at serious substance that much more enticing. 

If there's a reason to believe Iowa can execute the "every preparation is the same" mantra this week, it's because these Hawkeyes have already sidestepped ample hype and hoopla en route to a huge win. Dodging Cy-Hawk talk to deliver a riveting performance gave this Iowa group coveted experience it doesn't usually have.

Saturday will mark just the sixth time under Ferentz that Iowa enters an Associated Press top-10 game having already beaten a top-10 foe earlier that season. The only other Ferentz squad to have three ranked games within the first six weeks was his first one. 

"It is big that we've had a game like the Iowa State game because we've handled a week where there was a lot of buzz as well. But it only helps us if we do it again," Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras said. "It's not a guarantee. It doesn't make it any easier, but we know how to do it. It just, again, becomes about the guys on this team preparing as well as we can and preparing to win the game.

"We have the blueprint. We just have to do it again. And that's not easy."    

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If the Hawkeyes can conquer this latest challenge, the door swings wide open for 2021 to finish among those most unforgettable Iowa seasons. Although gameday execution is always objective No. 1, successfully sifting through the week before carries more weight than ever in a situation like this one.     

"What we got to do is make sure we don't leave the door open this week," Ferentz said, "because we're answering those texts, trying to get Johnny Smith tickets — all that stuff. We have to stay in our routine and practice and do the work you have 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.