IOWA CITY—As the clock wound down on Iowa's 40-35 win over Minnesota, my friend leaned forward and gave me a knowing look. Kinnick Stadium had never seen a moment like this before.
Seemingly oblivious to what was happening on the field or being announced over the PA system, fans roared in unison. "I-O-W-A."
Iowa fans have continued their customary touchdown chant well past the ensuing kickoff before, but never like this. Usually, like a typical Hawkeye season, it tapers off a play or two into the next possession. Not this time. Not even as Minnesota launched a semi-successful, last-ditch comeback effort on the field.
A big first down gain?
From the student section, a deafening "I."
A roughing the passer penalty?
From the Northwest corner, an "O."
Another big throw over the middle?
Uh, guys? Minnesota's in the red zone.
Even from there, the chant stopped only briefly once Minnesota scored a touchdown to pull within one score of the Hawkeyes. After a failed onside kick, the chant came back, this time morphing into "10-0."
Kinnick Stadium has seen some happy fans in its 85-year history, but it might have never seen anything like the pure, organic bliss that filled the air Saturday night.
Because after five years of mediocrity, 15 years under Kirk Ferentz and a program's lifetime of waiting to see 10-0, Iowa got its perfect night after a perfect day.
Stars don't align like this.
It was Iowa's first-ever November night game. It was the Hawkeyes' chance to go 10-0 for the first time ever. It was the debut of Iowa's first non-throwback, non-Veterans Day alternate uniforms, to match the crowd's "blackout" theme. Kinnick was also host to the first ever "Grapple on the Gridiron" wrestling dual meet between No. 1 Oklahoma State and No. 4 Iowa, and wrestling is almost as big a deal as football in the Hawkeye State.
Something should've gone wrong with so much at stake.
The best wrestling program in NCAA history hasn't won a national title since 2010. The football team hadn't won more than eight games in a year since 2009. This was a rut, and in the fast-paced world of college athletics, it seemed like an eternity.
The opening act was designed almost entirely to bring Penn State's NCAA wrestling attendance record of 15,996 back to Iowa City. Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands predicted an attendance of 25,000. More than 42,000 people showed up.
After a loss in one match in which Oklahoma State was favored, one fan declared the wrestling meet over unless the Hawkeyes could pull off a massive upset. But after getting a surprise technical fall in the second half of the meet, Iowa escaped with the victory.
Even Brands — usually the most intense, zoned-in coach in the country — couldn't believe what he had witnessed.
"Hey, this is pretty cool," he said. "This wasn't just being part of something, but it was part of something ending with a triumph."
The atmosphere Saturday night figured to be crazy, and in a way, we got what we expected. It was loud, and the stands were full for the first time all season. But this was a different kind of crowd.
Initially, I planned on writing about how trashy the scene at Iowa got during the Hawkeyes' first November night game. Game days at Iowa can get messy, and this game presented more potential messes that Iowa didn't need to deal with.
"The one concern we heard before and continued to hear (with November night games) is the public safety element," Big Ten senior associate commissioner for television administration Mark Rudner told SB Nation before the game. "There are -- certainly from local authorities, from university police and local police -- there tend to be more incidents during primetime games. Especially when you end games around midnight, and some of our stadia have one road in and one road out of town, and you're trying to move folks in and out of town and get them home safely."
Given that this game would kick off two hours after the sun went down, with two events to tailgate, Iowa City seemed primed to be a drunken mess.
But something was different about this crowd outside the stadium between events. Yes, people took part in the usual festivities. But the emphasis wasn't on the drinking. Iowa football is so important to this state because of what it represents: A way for everyone in the state to come together. And these days, the football is just as uniting as the tailgating.
Before this, Iowa hadn't sold out a game all season. Not only was this game sold out, the cheapest tickets on StubHub were $170. According to a scalper, the going rate was about $200 in Iowa City.
"Man, I really fucked up not getting a ticket," said one friend. A year ago, he would have been just as content watching from the bars.
Like most fan bases, Iowa fans usually wait until game time to pack up the tailgate and head inside. Saturday, 40 minutes before kickoff, Kinnick was already full.
"I've never seen it like this," said one fan. "Even in other sellouts, I've never seen it this full." The student section seemed to exceed capacity, with people watching from the aisles and filling the concourse.
This was a group completely in sync. The girl behind me, who didn't know her starting quarterback's name, didn't seem at all out of place next to two fans reciting college football history.
When quarterback C.J. Beathard went down with an injury in the fourth quarter, one fan yelled, "It's like 2009 all over again!"
In 2009, quarterback Ricky Stanzi was injured in the quest for 10-0 and did not return until the bowl game, dropping the Hawkeyes to 9-1. But 2009 wasn't 2015.
"The only pressure any of us are feeling right now is to not let each other down," Ferentz said after.
In 2015, Beathard came back one play later and led his team to victory over trophy rival Minnesota, alongside LeShun Daniels Jr.'s 195 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
"The fans were fantastic," Ferentz said. "Sold out, black-out crowd, and the energy was present from the time we came up pregame. Just an electric atmosphere. To be involved in this program 26 years now, these are the things our players will remember their entire lives."
This crowd might have even started a new tradition, with an impromptu phone light show that sent a touch of magic throughout the stadium. Nobody knows how it started, but everyone knew what to do.
This was celebrating a moment that might never happen again. I heard no expletives hurled at Minnesota. Nobody mentioned Iowa's current most hated rival, ESPN. It was all about three words: Ten and oh.
It ranged from that chant — "10 and 0! 10 and 0!" — to excitement — "10-0, baby!" — to one fan, who seemed to be in disbelief — "Guys, we're f---ing 10-0."
Sunday will be for complaining about the rankings. Monday will be for turning attention to beating Purdue and winning the Big Ten West. But Iowa and its fans managed to live in the moment. Twenty minutes after the Hawkeyes took their final kneel down, the stadium was still not empty.
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