By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The Iowa-Iowa State football rivalry has a perception problem that seems to be getting worse on one side
The so called Big Game is considered a big pain to what seems like more and more Hawkeye fans each year.
They blame the Cyclones for ruining Iowa’s nonconference schedule because playing Iowa State every year makes it virtually impossible for Iowa to schedule other teams from Power 5 conferences.
It has reached the point where any time another Big Ten team schedules a home-and-away series against an elite nonconference opponent, Iowa fans react on social media by blaming Iowa State for preventing Iowa from doing the same thing
The Big Game, which will be played Saturday in Ames, is also considered by many a no-win situation for Iowa because when Iowa prevails, it’s only doing what it is supposed to do. But when Iowa loses, it feels like the end of the world because the Cyclones usually aren’t very good.
The game doesn’t always live up to the hype, either, but that’s understandable because the hype is ridiculous for this game.
Hawkeye fans have a point about the lack of scheduling flexibility, which comes from Iowa always wanting to schedule seven home games for financial reasons. But that’s a small price to pay for an instate rivalry that is unique and special for multiple reasons, not the last of which is its competiveness with the series tied at 10-10 over the past 20 years.
The series has been competitive ever since former Hawkeye Dan McCarney rebuilt Iowa State in the late 1990s. Some Iowa fans still resent that part of history and miss the days when the Hawkeyes used to crush Iowa State on a regular basis.
Iowa has two Power 5 football programs despite being a state with low population. Nebraska can’t make that claim, nor can Minnesota, Wisconsin, both Dakotas or Arkansas.
Heck, Ohio doesn’t even have two Power 5 football programs despite being the seventh most populous state with over 11 million residents.
Fans from both sides of the rivalry should be proud that little ole' Iowa can field such an event.
IThe Big Game might not have much national appeal, but to us, it’s huge. And if Iowa State would just stop struggling, the national appeal eventually would come.
The Cyclones performed woefully against Iowa last season, losing 42-3 at Kinnick Stadium.
But it was only Matt Campbell’s second game as head coach. His team was much better by the end of last season and his current team also looks vastly improved compared to the team that unraveled in Iowa City last September.
“I haven't watched it close,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz when asked about the Cyclones after Saturday’s season opener. “The one thing I've noticed without studying them is during the course of the year how much improvement (they made). The team we saw here, that was a new staff with a whole new situation. But midseason on, those guys had it going pretty good, from what I can tell.
“There's an excellent coaching staff, and they've got good players and really good players on offense. They're almost the opposite of us, I guess. When we play there or here, it's always a hard fought, tough game. That's what I always expect this time too.”
Speaking of players, the two who are arguably the best – Iowa linebacker Josey Jewell and Iowa State receiver Allen Lazard – are both Iowa natives, but they entered college under much different circumstances.
Jewell is from Decorah and picked Iowa over a partial scholarship from Northern Iowa and a chance to play in his hometown for Division III Luther, while Lazard picked Iowa State over some of the top programs in the country, including Notre Dame
Jewell has far exceeded expectations, while Lazard has lived up to them.
In both cases, it’s a neat story.
Another storyline to follow on Saturday will be Nate Stanley making his first start on the road as the Iowa quarterback and just his second start overall.
Stanley was good and bad in his debut, throwing three touchdown passes, but also committing three turnovers during the 24-3 victory over Wyoming. The fact he stayed the course when he could’ve easily wilted under the pressure is perhaps the most impressive thing Stanley did in his debut.
"He went through some rough times out there," Ferentz said of Stanley. "I mentioned the whole team really responded to the bumps, but I thought he did too. He didn't get rattled. I'm sure he was internally, but he stayed strong, just stayed steady out there, and some of those throws that he made were pretty impressive and the catches as well. But for Nate to make those kinds of throws, I thought that, especially coming off a couple bumps, that says a lot about his makeup."
The pressure will be different on Saturday in Ames where a majority of the fans will be cheering against Stanley and trying to help make his brief stay miserable.
Another three-turnover game probably would be disastrous and would definitely test the patience of the Iowa coaches.
“I feel like I’m kind of a perfectionist so I’m a little upset with some stuff that went on with the ball security,” Stanley said Saturday. “Like I said, my teammates did a great job of picking me up. They had my back the whole game, the defense did a great job of stopping them on short fields and stuff so I’m just really thankful for my teammates.”
Brian Ferentz is another interesting storyline as Kirk Ferentz's son and as Iowa's new offensive coordinator. Brian isn't afraid to speak his mind, even if he's talking about the Cyclones, and that adds some spice to the rivalry.
On paper, Iowa should prevail on Saturday, but we know better than to believe what’s on paper. That is part of the beauty of this rivalry.
Iowa fans hate hearing about the Little Cyclone engine that could, but often it’s true, and part of the appeal.