IOWA CITY, Iowa — The pointers came quickly from Drew Ott.
Listen to the play call. Focus on your keys. Just look at your man.
He’d repeat it again and again to Matt Nelson and the other defensive ends. It was the blueprint he learned for figuring out how to thrive in Big Ten road games.
“He was huge,” Nelson said.
Iowa heads to Penn State, No. 12 in the first College Football Playoff rankings, on Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET, BTN) with a nine-game road winning streak. The secret to the Hawkeyes’ success away from Kinnick Stadium lies in the way they ignore the situation. Learning how to keep 100,000 raucous fans from impacting your play is a trait passed down from upperclassmen to underclassmen.
“That is one thing that you got to get out of your system, and that’s not getting overwhelmed by the environment that you are in,” Iowa senior cornerback Desmond King said. “Like I said, the crowd is going to be in the game and you got to stay focused on the one most important thing and that’s just playing the game and getting the win.”
Keep it simple and lose yourself in the game. It’s an easy message. It’s not easy to put into practice.
A stadium full of people is cheering Iowa’s every mistake. They get on the Hawkeyes from the moment they step foot in the stadium. Ignoring it isn’t natural. It hit King like a punch to the face as a freshman in 2013. It was the same way with Nelson in 2015.
They needed to be taught how to handle the situation. B.J Lowery and Christian Kirksey pulled King aside and reminded him to think about his play and focus on the next step. Nelson leaned on Ott. Each newcomer received similar advice — the narrower the tunnel vision the better.
“After the first or second series you just zone out the crowd and get more and more into the game,” Nelson said. “You got to get lost in the formations, the personnel so that the crowd doesn’t make it a factor.”
Not all Hawkeyes completely tune it out.
“It gives you something to feed off of,” Iowa defensive end Parker Hesse said. “When you are on the road and hated you can kind of use it as your identity. It’s us against all you guys.”
The fans can be viewed as another opponent, but one Hesse ultimately knows won’t make the game-winning play.
“Even though you enjoy the noise you realize there is nothing outside of those white lines that matters, has an effect on the game,” Hesse said. “The game is decided within the white lines and that is it.”
Penn State and 107,282-seat Beaver Stadium will be a unique challenge. The Nittany Lions are peaking, winners of four straight, including a victory over No. 6 Ohio State.
Most of the Hawkeyes have yet to play in a 100,000-seat stadium. Only a handful of players made the trek to Ohio State and the 104,000-plus Ohio Stadium in 2013. It was so long ago that defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson doesn’t think the trip will help him with the Nittany Lions.
“It’s going to be a whole new experience for me,” Johnson said. “It is going to be a challenge going somewhere where you’ve never been. It takes so much mental focus and just playing your game.”
This is the first major road test for redshirt freshman defensive end Anthony Nelson and true freshman cornerback Manny Rugamba. It will be on the upperclassmen to do what players like Ott and Kirksey did for them.
“We got to pull the younger guys with us and get us all on one page,” King said. “I feel like the younger guys are starting to realize what kind of job and opportunity it is for everyone on the team.”
Ignore the noise. It might as well be Iowa’s road game motto.