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Here's the Thing: Iowa State

I grew up in western Iowa, in a town that was decidedly split between Nebraska and Iowa State and sent the bare minimum of graduated students to Iowa City.  It's why I have always hesitated to join in the "Cy-Hawk is ISU's Super Bowl" talk: The Cyclone fans I know hold just as much animosity toward Big Red as they do toward us.  It's also why I used to put so much personal emphasis on the game.  It went beyond bragging rights, to the open hostility my ISU-attending friends showed when I went home on break.  Years pass, of course, and those high school friends move away, and I don't even have breaks to go home for anymore, and the unchecked animosity of my youth floats away.  I'm older and wiser and don't feel the overriding need to scream because Grant Steen failed to reaffirm my college choice in an arbitrary sporting contest.  In 2007, a colleague came to my house to watch the game in an Iowa State sweatshirt and Iowa hat, and I didn't even throw him out (at least not until after the fifth field goal).  

I might not be as insane about Cy-Hawk now, but that feeling I had 10 years ago passes down from generation to generation, and still exists on both sides.  The dismissive attitude of Iowa fans, the inferiority complex of Iowa State supporters, the clash of two cultures which look indistinguishable to outsiders but carry 150 years of prejudices and slights, both real and perceived.  Those common stereotypes, all manifest themselves in Jack Trice tomorrow morning.  The result is a dangerous mix for a road team: Jack 3X isn't a particularly formidable venue in and of itself, but it turns into the Roman Coliseum when Iowa's on the field.

On this week's podcast, John Bohnenkamp talked about a conversation he had with James Vandenberg about the hostile environment in Ames.  Vandenberg, who filled in at quarterback on the road against Ohio State in 2009, acknowledged that Ohio Stadium is generally a louder environment than Jack Trice, a function of size and tradition.  This is not news, of course.  What was news, at least to me, was that Vandenberg acknowledged that, while Columbus may be louder, Ames is more hostile, and that increased level of hostility can be felt.  That's true of Jack Trice Stadium in comparison with Columbus, just as it will be in comparison with Lincoln and St. Paul and Happy Valley.  Ames might not be as loud, but that sound is angrier than virtually every other place Iowa plays, hostility so palpable it can be separated from the roar by the players on the field.

It's how Iowa responds to that hostility that will dictate the outcome, because this game isn't particularly close on paper.  Iowa State is fielding what is universally acknowledged as Paul Rhoads' best team, but they still don't have the overall strength and athleticism of Iowa.  The Cyclones needed two late touchdown drives to dispatch with UNI at home last week.  The Clones are now 13-13 in the last 2+ seasons, and have lost to Iowa twice over that period by a combined score of 70-10.  Their quarterback is a junior college transfer who threw three interceptions in his first start.  Their running game doesn't exist.  The secondary is cheesecloth on gridiron.  Iowa State football, at this point, is the textbook definition of mediocrity.  If they are to win this week, Jack Trice has to play a role; it has to drag the Hawkeyes into the same level of mediocrity as the Cyclones.

Jack Three Times will do its best to bring Iowa down to its level, and Iowa's response to this provocation could well determine whether this game will be the blowout expected by many or the game of Atari Pitfall we all fear.  Compounding that is a lack of experience in Ames.  Of Iowa's 22 current starters, just six -- Marvin McNutt, Keenan Davis, Riley Reiff, Adam Gettis, Broderick Binns, and Shaun Prater -- have non-special teams, non-garbage time experience in Ames.  Just four have prior starts.  Of the current roster, only Jordan Bernstine was in attendance the last time Iowa played a competitive game in Jack Trice (2007's 15-13 loss).  For the first time since 1997, Iowa's roster is completely devoid of experience in a close road game against Iowa State.

If this young and inexperienced batch of Hawkeyes deal with Jack Trice tomorrow in the proper way, if they storm the Cyclones in the first quarter and bury the crowd before it has a chance to make a difference, Iowa wins and wins handily.  But if Iowa fails to do that, if ISU is still in the game as the final quarter begins and the crowd makes its anger known, it's anyone's game.  Success or failure on Saturday rests solely on Iowa's response to the mob.