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Kinnick Mystique Provides Reason for Optimism

In the world of college football, perhaps nothing gets players and fans alike juiced up quite like a game under the lights

The men on the field, having almost exclusively played under cover of darkness for four years before entering the collegiate ranks, relish the opportunity to perform in primetime. With the eyes of a national audience upon them, the stakes are raised and the adrenaline pumps just a little harder.

Outside the stadium, fans get a few extra hours to enjoy their favorite pregame activities. Bars fill with thirsty patrons looking for a place to keep up with the daytime action across the country, while parking lots and driveways play host to the world’s greatest tailgate chefs. Campuses are abuzz with students and alumni taking part in all the Saturday traditions that make college football special.

As the sun inches closer and closer to the horizon, all parties converge at the epicenter of the day’s festivities, bright lights illuminating the giant cathedrals where they’ve all come to worship. Marching bands parade across the field, music blares as teams take the field and, by kickoff time, each and every person in attendance is focused on one goal: Victory or Bust.

In Iowa City, the game day experience is truly unlike any other. From the tailgating, to the Big Ass Turkey Legs, to the player walk, to “Back in Black,” the Hawkeyes do game day as well as, if not better than, any team in the nation—and that speaks to a standard 11 a.m. kickoff.

Night games at Kinnick Stadium are a completely different animal, and the Hawkeyes have put up the numbers to prove it.

Before the arrival of Kirk Ferentz in 1999, exactly one night game had been played in Kinnick, a 24-7 Iowa loss at the hands of the top-ranked Miami Hurricanes in 1992. With the advent of conference-specific networks combined with more lucrative television deals, Iowa’s primetime opportunities have become more and more frequent. The Hawkeyes have hosted 13 night games during Ferentz’s tenure.

Here’s a quick rundown:

1999—Northern Illinois (W, 24-0): The first win of the Kirk Ferentz era, and the only positive result in a 1-10 season.

2002—Iowa State (L, 36-31): The only black mark on an 11-1 regular season, and a loss that potentially kept the Hawkeyes from playing for a national championship.

2003—#16 Arizona State (W, 21-2): Two Ramon Ochoa touchdown grabs propelled Iowa to 4-0 and a #9 national ranking.

2006—#1 Ohio State (L, 38-17): With ESPN College Gameday on site, the Hawkeyes couldn’t keep up with the eventual national runners-up.

2007—Syracuse (W, 35-0): A four-touchdown performance from quarterback Jake Christenssen.

2009—Michigan (W, 30-28): After a game-opening pick-six thrown by Ricky Stanzi, the Hawkeyes rebounded, forcing five Wolverine turnovers.

2010—#22 Penn State (W, 24-3): Iowa defeats Penn State for the third consecutive season.

2011—Northwestern (W, 41-31): The Hawkeyes blew a 17-0 first half lead before taking control.

2012—Penn State (L, 38-14): Iowa gave up 38 straight points before getting on the scoreboard. They would finish 4-8 for the season.

2015—Pittsburgh (W, 27-24): Marshall Koehn’s 57-yard field goal wins it for the Hawkeyes as time expires.

2015—Minnesota (W, 40-35): Iowa runs its record to 10-0 as they pull away late.

2016—Iowa State (W, 42-3): A thorough thrashing of the in-state rival.

2016—#2 Michigan (W, 14-13): Akrum Wadley racked up 167 total yards and the Hawkeyes emerged victorious on a last-second 33-yard field goal by Keith Duncan.

For those keeping track at home, that gives Iowa a 10-3 record in night games played at Kinnick Stadium under Kirk Ferentz. If you’re thinking these are just numbers that don’t mean a whole lot, consider that they are just 4-6 in night games away from Iowa City in that same span.

So what is it about Kinnick at night that gives the home team such an advantage?

The simplest answer is that it’s always easier to win on your home turf, no matter the time of day.

But anyone who has attended a night game in Iowa City knows there’s more to it than that. The atmosphere created inside Kinnick Stadium on a Saturday evening is something that can only come from being located in a state where there’s no professional game to prepare for the next day. The Hawkeyes are quite literally the only show in town and, more often than not, 70,585 people want to see that show.

From end zone to end zone, you won’t find spectators closer to the field than those at Kinnick. Opposing teams are constantly tormented, their focus split between what’s going on the field and what’s being shouted from behind them. And good luck communicating when those 70,000-plus crescendo to full-throat. There are stadiums with larger capacities, but few can rival the decibel level of peak Kinnick.

Penn State is bringing an extremely talented football team to Iowa City on Saturday, and that’s not up for debate. The defending Big Ten champions boast an offense averaging over 460 yards per game. Quarterback Trace McSorley has thrown nine touchdowns in three games. All-Everything running back Saquon Barkley is averaging 8.1 yards per carry on the season and burned the Hawkeyes for 167 yards on 20 carries a year ago. They outscored their first three opponents by a rough average of 47-5.

The oddsmakers are decidedly against Iowa, too. At last check, most reputable sportsbooks figure the spread for Saturday’s matchup is 12.5 in favor of the Nittany Lions.

If they’re going to celebrate a victory Saturday night, the Hawkeyes will likely have to count on a flawless performance in all aspects of their game plan.

But they’ll also be counting on that Kinnick mystique. It’s a mystique inexplicable to those who haven’t experienced it. A mystique born of passion, history and, to be fair, probably some adult beverages. It’s a mystique that has turned otherwise average teams into world-beaters, if only for one night. It’s a mystique unrivaled in all of college football.

The men with Tigerhawk logos emblazoned on their helmets will have the opportunity to make a statement on the field Saturday night. But rest assured, they know they’re not going it alone—they’ll have 70,585 auxiliary teammates, and possibly a little magic, on their side.