In college football, no place is more synonymous with upsets than Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium.
Maybe it’s the way 70,000 fans cave in towards the field, creating a raucous atmosphere. Maybe it’s the pink walls of the visitors’ locker room, messing with players’ pre-game routines. Maybe it’s divine intervention.
Whatever the case, there’s something about playing in Kinnick Stadium that sends quality teams into uncharacteristic struggles.
“As they say, (it’s where) top-five teams go to die,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said Monday with a chuckle.
For the most part, Harbaugh brushed off concerns about the location of his squad’s impending road contest this Saturday, it’s first of the season. But there is some truth behind his words.
Dating back to 2008, Iowa is 5-1 in its last six games at home against top-five opponents — the Wolverines among them. The last time Michigan played in Iowa was 2016, when it entered the game ranked second in the country with a 9-0 record.
But none of that mattered in Kinnick.
The Wolverines’ offense stagnated, turned the ball over multiple times and ultimately lost 14-13 on a last second field goal, uprooting a season that seemed destined for the College Football Playoff.
Michigan’s difficulties in Iowa actually date back even further. The Wolverines haven’t walked off that field victorious since 2005, when they won 23-20 on a walk off touchdown in overtime. Since then, they’ve lost four straight — all by one possession.
It’s not like Michigan is incapable of getting past the Hawkeyes. Just last December, it throttled Iowa 42-3 in Indianapolis to win the Big Ten Championship. But as the Wolverines know — and Ohio State, Michigan State and Penn State can attest as well — that past success only gets you so far in Kinnick.
“Obviously, they got their little psychological things that they do,” graduate tight end Joel Honigford said Tuesday. “The pink locker room. It’s gonna be loud. They’re going to be juiced up. We have to focus on us and stay even keel, not letting the crowd get to us and just playing our brand of football.”
In the past, Harbaugh has received criticism for his inability to lead his team into tough road environments and come out on top. That all changed last year, though, starting against Wisconsin.
Playing in Madison — a place the Wolverines hadn’t won since 2001 — they finally accomplished that feat, running away with a 38-17 win. But it wasn’t just the play on the field that led them to the long-awaited victory.
It was how they sucked the energy out of Camp Randall Stadium and made it their own, how they danced to the Badgers’ patented ‘Jump Around’ theme song, that spoke volumes.
It was a formula that proved to be sustainable, as Michigan later escaped hostile environments in Lincoln and State College with victories.
The Wolverines of years past may have consumed themselves with the daunting prospects of playing in Kinnick. But this new mindset, the belief that they can make hostile environments their own, has fostered a different attitude across the team.
“I don’t think it’ll be a problem for us at all,” junior defensive tackle Kris Jenkins said of playing at Kinnick. “I think we’re really going to embody that culture that we had last year going into away games, which is just that we got to play our ball. We can’t let the atmosphere intimidate us.”
Throughout the week, Michigan has shown little interest in dwelling on the location of the game. The Wolverines instead are figuring out how they’ll move the ball against the Hawkeyes’ stingy, number-one ranked scoring defense and scheming up ways to contain Iowa’s steady ground attack.
Kinnick Stadium may be a place where top-five teams go to die. The reputation is warranted.
But the Wolverines are ready to prove that, just like last season, they can rewrite a few more narratives.