IOWA CITY — John Garrison didn't need any help being nervous.
That came naturally with the Nebraska offensive lineman playing as a true freshman in 1999. And seeing his first career action on the road in a hostile environment.
But at Kinnick Stadium, his edginess was only ramped up with the University of Iowa faithful so close to the Husker bench that Garrison could feel them.
“They were right on top of you,” Garrison said. “You can share peanuts and popcorn with the fans.”
Garrison will be in the line of fire again Friday, this time as an NU assistant coach. And he can warn some of his Husker offensive linemen that things will be yelled and poise could be tested.
“Yeah, sure, you hear things,” Garrison said. “We're all human. But you've got to tune things out. It's part of the game, and you're used to it. It's fun playing on the road.”
Nebraska has waited 13 years to return to Kinnick Stadium, but this visit will be different. It will be only the second Husker-Hawkeye clash as Big Ten rivals and the first in Iowa City.
And although the teams are currently riding five-game streaks in opposite directions, the Huskers are aware that a crowd of 70,000-plus won't make it easy on them.
“It's a loud, boisterous environment — and they're into it,” said NU assistant coach Barney Cotton, the offensive coordinator at Iowa State when the Cyclones lost close games at Kinnick in 2004 and '06. “I'm sure it'll be full. And I know that they would like nothing more than to rub Nebraska's nose in it, too.”
As with Garrison, Cotton said what stands out — and can have the biggest impact — is the small buffer zone between the stands and the field. Cotton recalled fans being so close to the field of play that he wondered if it was safe.
“I know Okie State they're really close, and Michigan State a little bit, and Colorado … but this place to me is the closest of all,” Cotton said. “And the wall is short, so people are like right in your meetings on the sideline. They're right there with you.”
Actually, they'll be right there against NU as Iowa tries to salvage something out of a disappointing season with the 11 a.m. game that will be televised by ABC.
The Hawkeyes (4-7, 2-5 Big Ten) have nothing left to play for but one final home game for their seniors and the chance to derail NU's run at a Big Ten championship. And the latter will matter more to most of the Iowa fans in attendance.
Former Iowa assistant coach Rick Kaczenski knows what it can be like from his seven seasons on the Hawkeyes' staff.
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“Our guys know it's going to be a tough place,” said Kaczenski, hired last December to be the NU defensive line coach. “I've been talking about that in the offseason. It's going to have an effect on us, and we're going to have to handle it.”
It's a rowdy place when Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio State visit, and it could be even more so when the school from across the Missouri River visits — and if not this year, then surely when the whole Nebraska-Iowa rivalry blossoms.
“I'm sure, anytime you got a border state and all that,” Kaczenski said. “There's a reason we're playing on Black Friday. It's going to be a heck of a rivalry, and it's great to be a part of. You can't beat it. It's college football at its best.”
The experience will actually start in the visiting locker room, which former Hawkeye coach Hayden Fry years ago decided to paint pink.
“It does have a calming effect, I'll give them that,” Kaczenski said, laughing. “But they've done a nice job with their facilities, and there probably isn't a better visitor's locker room (in the Big Ten), size-wise and convenience-wise.
“I'll have to get Eric Martin out of there early so he don't fall asleep on us.”
A story this week on IowaWatch.org said poor sportsmanship at Iowa sporting events has caught the attention of UI officials. It included reports of a full can of beer being thrown at an Iowa State cheerleader and T-shirts at the Penn State game mocking the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
“We strive to always show hospitality to visiting fans by positive cheering and removal of degrading remarks,” Joshua Berka, assistant director of event management for the UI athletic department, was quoted as saying in the story. “On game day we, as fans, need to treat them as guests in our home.”
Cotton said he never encountered anything mean or out of the ordinary in Iowa City, although he admits the headsets muffle some of the goings-on. Nebraska senior tight end Ben Cotton was a teenager attending those ISU-Iowa games at Kinnick when Barney Cotton was with the Cyclones.
“It's a good football environment,” Ben Cotton said. “Everyone's going to be hyped up and fired up for this football game.”
During Cotton's career, however, NU has played at places such as Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan, Texas A&M, Washington and Virginia Tech.
Senior linebacker Will Compton said the Huskers should benefit from the usual swarm of NU fans trying to lessen the home-field advantage.
“I'm kind of excited to play in that game because they talk about how close the fans are, the whole sideline thing, the whole locker room thing,” Compton said. “But I think we'll handle it well, and we're ready to play in another environment.”
Garrison said he survived it in that 1999 game as he handled the long-snapping duties during a 42-7 victory. It comes down to staying focused and remembering what you're there to do, he said, “and just complete the mission.”
Completing the mission would send Nebraska (9-2, 6-1) to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game on Dec. 1.
Having played at Kinnick Stadium as an Ohio State safety and spending a year with the Hawkeyes as a graduate assistant in 1991, NU head coach Bo Pelini understands the challenge.
“That's a difficult place to go in and win,” Pelini said this week. “Always has been.”
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