This is an annual tradition of late summer, one of the fine early season college football games on the crop checkered prairies of the middle west. There is the bright, warm sun, and the oceans of corn rolling ripe over the land. The leisurely afternoon tailgates around the stadiums are tremendous feasts; what Hayden Fry liked to call "high porch picnics."
Iowa State has become a much tougher football team in the last several years, and especially feisty in this game. Growing up, I used to go back and forth between these stadiums and watch Iowa administer beatings at both ends. The second to last game I saw the Hawkeyes won in Ames, 63-20. But just two years later, the last one I saw in person, Iowa State won at home, 17-10. It was a sign of things to come.
Last year it was triple overtime, and an almost mythical performance from Cyclones' hero Steele Jantz that decided the game. The 44-41 Cyclones' victory compelled State ahead 8-to-7 in the last 15 meetings. That 15-year cycle is important, because in the preceding 15, Iowa was unbeaten. State has not won in Iowa City since 2002. Iowa leads the series overall, 39-20.
Cyclones' quarterback Jantz spoke to the Gazette, too: “You’re either a Cyclone fan or a Hawkeye fan,” Jantz said. “It just means so much to the fans. Cyclone fans really want to win and Hawkeye fans really want to win. That’s where I get the biggest sense for what this means.”
But it must be a little brother, underdog mentality that keeps the fire in State, because whereas Hawkeyes' fans generally root for the Cyclones in every game they're not playing against Iowa, Iowa State fans almost universally loath the Hawkeyes. I've always had the impression that Iowa losses felt almost as good to Cyclone fans as their own wins did.
But that may change under head coach Paul Rhoads, who is beginning his fourth season with the Cyclones, if they continue to improve and establish a tradition of their own. State was playing in front of 50,000 people at every home game last season, a huge improvement from the old game-day atmosphere at Jack Trice Stadium.
Since Rhoads has been with State they've beaten Nebraska in Lincoln, Texas at Austin, and last year the Cyclones kept Oklahoma State from the national championship game when they scored 17 consecutive second half points and vanquished the Cowboys in overtime in a memorable Thursday night game at Ames.
Though Rhoads' record is 9-16 in Big 12 play, and 19-20 overall, the record belies what is going on at State. In 120 years of football, the Cyclones have played in 11 bowl games, yet Rhoads has led them there two of the last three years—missing the trifecta by one game in 2010—and won over Minnesota in the 2009 Insight Bowl.
"Paul Rhoads had a really great idea of what he wanted to happen there," Ferentz told The Gazette. "They’ve built an identity. They have one on offense and defense and special teams. Personnel have improved every year. Very effective and tough to defend offensive package. Defense, they make you beat them."
The four trophy cases are empty in the locker room at Iowa City, where this game will be played. The Hawkeyes have not gotten up for their big rivalry games the last several years. The last two games against Minnesota, played for their finest trophy, the Floyd of Rosedale, have been among the flattest, most uninspired games I've ever seen Iowa play.
This year the Hawks' coaching staff has hung blown up photographs of the Cyclones celebrating last years' win. This is not a motivational tool generally employed at Iowa, but something has to change when your rivals are holding each of your traveling trophies.
“It’s a big game for us,” senior center James Ferentz told the Gazette. “It’s very important. It’s one we’ve been looking forward to all summer.
“If you want to be respected in your conference, you have to be respected in your state. Right now, we’re not the best team in the state, so Saturday, we’re eager to go out and try to change that.”
If the Hawkeyes' offense plays like it did last week against Northern Illinois, they probably will lose the game. Iowa quarterback James Vandenburg was unable to throw the ball more than five yards downfield. The Hawkeyes put the entire weight of the offense on sophomore running back Damon Bullock, who was making his first start. Beyond Bullock, defense and special teams were responsible for the win.
The offense is new, though, and Vandenburg may be better this week than he was last. He threw for more than 3,000 yards, 25 touchdowns and seven interceptions last season, so there is potential for a break through.
Iowa's receivers may be good—we know Keenan Davis can run routes and catch—but there does not appear to be a guy who can sprint past the coverage and make a big grab downfield. The Hawkeyes are going to put a lot of throws into the hands of tight-end C.J. Fiedorowicz in the short and middle range. But three yard outs and curls are not going to be enough to beat the Cyclones.
If Iowa is forced again to run their outside zone all day, they'll be playing against the strength of State's defense, which is their linebackers. Seniors A.J. Klein and Jake Knott, along with junior Jeremiah George are big, tough rovers for the Cyclones' behind the line of scrimmage.
The Hawkeyes will have to stop Jantz from running out of the pocket. They'll also have to reduce his completion percentage and yards as a passer. Jantz completed 32 of 45 passes for 281 yards and two touchdowns last week against Tulsa. State was a home underdog in that game and just rolled the Golden Hurricane, 38-23. They looked much better beating Tulsa than Iowa looked escaping from Northern Illinois.
If it isn't Jantz though, the Cyclones run with junior running backs Shontrelle Johnson and James White. Johnson went for 120 yards and a touchdown against Tulsa. White picked up 5.4 yards a carry and scored a touchdown of his own.
"Someone told me we were ten point favorites," said Ferentz. "Games get decided on the field. All that stuff is really overhyped. They had a very impressive win [last week]. I know what I have seen on film and I see a good football team."
Iowa State has always struggled to beat Iowa in Kinnick Stadium, but under Rhoads' the road has not been a wilderness of pain. Several of the programs all-time signature wins have come there.
The game is going to be close. It may hinge on a good punt, a clutch field goal or a block. If State gets going on the ground and in the air, and shuts down Iowa's passing game, they probably will win.
If the Hawkeyes' can throw it, balancing out their running game, and keep Jantz from opening up the field with the pass so that Johnson and White have room to gallop, the Hawkeyes will reclaim the state championship, and snatch back that Cy-Hawk trophy, making those empty glass cases markedly less transparent.