It’s been almost two years since Kinnick Stadium was full. 649 days to be exact. Saturday, that comes to an end. And what better way to welcome back fans, than with an opening week, ranked, conference game.
“I just can’t say enough about how excited I am to have game week back and game week with fans,” Henry B. and Patricia B. Tippie Director of Athletics Chair Gary Barta said.
The No. 18 Iowa Hawkeyes welcome the No. 17 Indiana Hoosiers to town as part of one the toughest opening stretches to a season in recent memory.
“I think the reality is we all realize there’s not a lot of wiggle room this week,” Moon Family Head Football Coach Kirk Ferentz said.
It’s going to be a tough game no doubt. The Hoosiers return one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten in Michael Penix Jr., the Big Ten Receiver of the Year in Ty Fryfogle, a veteran offensive line and defense that led the conference in turnovers a season ago.
“You can’t ask for a better opportunity for the team,” junior quarterback Spencer Petras said. “To open up with a ranked opponent at home, to show what we can do.”
Playing a conference opponent week one in the Big Ten is rare. Before the pandemic forced the Big Ten to play an all-conference schedule last year, that only happened twice since 1996. This year, there’s five. An early season litmus test of sorts.
“You see where you stand right of the gate,” junior tight end Sam LaPorta said. “We’re really excited for the opportunity to face a top-20 opponent. But we’re a good football team as well.”
The Hawkeyes return plenty of talent of their own. A week didn’t go by where a player wasn’t on some sort of preseason watch list.
But the biggest boost might just come from the stands.
“On Saturday, Kinnick is probably going to be insane,” junior middle linebacker Jack Campbell said.
“Overall, I feel it can fuel the team” junior linebacker Dane Belton said. “The defense makes a play, it puts the offense in a good position. They score a touchdown. That puts the fans in an even crazier setting.”
Last year, pregame seemed the same…
“I feel like we were locked in on that bus,” Belton said. “There’s not a lot of talking, we got our mindset ready for the game listening to your own music.”
Until they got to the stadium.
“That’s something we missed last year.” Belton said. “My freshman year, you get that bus ride, right when you get off the highway, you see fans tailgating. They see the buses, they wave. Yelling go Hawks and stuff like that. You definitely see that stuff and its motivating.”
It’s supposed to be back to “normal” this year, but will it feel that way? Coach Ferentz said having fans in the stands will be special, but also feel “unusual”. After playing in relative silence for over a year, 70,000 screaming fans might take some getting used to.
“It’s going to be interesting,” Campbell said. “The crowd noise, you can’t imitate it. So just being clear and crisp with the communication is going to be important.”
It’s a “challenge,” if you even want to to call it that, they love having though. Because the only thing better than starting the year off with a ranked win, is it doing it with 70,000 of your closest friends.
“You drive up there in front of the Kinnick statue and it’s absolutely packed,” LaPorta said. “It’s a really exciting feeling to see your family there and your loved ones. It’s a really cool feeling and we can’t wait to pack the stadium.”