Whitver: This is the game that everybody in the state remembers all year long. As much as it means to the players, it means just as much to the fans. That is what makes rivalries so great. The fans lay their pride on the line just like the players.
As a player, you are going to hear about this game for at least a year, and possibly for many years to come. Every play is seen by the entire state. I cannot tell you how many times people still come up to me and talk about the third down pass I caught from Seneca Wallace when we were backed up in our own end zone in 2002. These are the types of games that can define a career, in good ways or bad.
CN: What were the preparations like for this game throughout your career?
Whitver: As far as the makeup of practice during the Iowa game, nothing really changes. However, during the Iowa week, you can feel the excitement in the air all week, starting on the Sunday before the game. It is very easy to go to practice during the week. As a player, it is very important to stay focused all week. There are a lot of distractions. All week people are calling to wish you luck or ask for tickets. It is also easy to get caught up reading the paper, watching sound-off, or doing interviews. It is very important to stay focused on the game and make sure you are ready to go on Saturday.
CN: Coach McCarney is enthusiastic all 365 days a year, but does he bring a certain excitement for this week?
Whitver: Definitely. Coach Mac is extremely fired up during the Iowa week. Not only does the ISU program have a lot riding on the game as far as fan support, in-state recruiting, momentum for the season, etc., but Coach Mac is an Iowa alum. He wants to win this game badly and he puts 110% of his energy into motivating his players during the week.
CN: What are some of your most memorable moments of Iowa game week, and of the game itself?
Whitver: The Iowa week was always the most fun week of the year for me. Even with all of the distractions, it is still fun to have the eyes of everybody in the state one game. If you are a player that is a native of Iowa, it is especially fun.
While I had many moments during the games that I will remember for a long time, I remember some of the other things even more. When you walk onto the field for an Iowa-Iowa State game, it gives you a feeling that you don't often get in life. I especially liked going over to Iowa City, being booed by their fans, and having the whole stadium against you. There is not a better feeling in the world then celebrating in the pink locker room at Kinnick Stadium. Those are the things I will always remember.
CN: Fans have their views of just how much of an emphasis should be placed on this game, but we're interested to get your take. Just how important is this game in the grand scheme of things? How long do the memories of the ISU-Iowa game last once you're into the rest of the season?
Whitver: This game is very important for the season. As I mentioned above, both programs have a lot riding on this game. If you win the game, it helped to build a fan base in the state, helps with in-state recruiting, as well as sets the tone for the rest of the season.
That being said, as a player, once the game is over, you must forget about it and move onto the next game. Whether you spend too much time patting yourself on the back, or spend too much time hanging your head, it can effect the remainder of the season.
I think both coaches would tell you that they would rather win a conference title and lose the Iowa-Iowa State game than have it the other way around. I doubt very much that Coach Ferentz was disappointed with the season they had in 2002, even though we beat them in Kinnick Stadium.
CN: Let's shift gears to the preparation for this season's game. What is the mindset of a team that's stocked with newcomers and youngsters that might not know the magnitude of this game? How much of a role do the captains and seniors play throughout a week like this?
Whitver: The inexperience of Iowa State can go one of two ways. They could be very nervous playing such an important game in front of a big crowd, or they could go into it too naïve to be nervous. I think the kids from Iowa know the magnitude of the game and will probably have a lot of butterflies before the game. The kids that aren't from Iowa might be a little naïve. However the young players approach it, once they get hit on Saturday, they will put all of the outside pressure behind them. Once you get into the game, it is just like any other game (in front of a rowdier crowd).
The seniors play a huge role during the rivalry week. The seniors only have one chance left to play in a rivalry game like this. They are going to leave everything on the field, and it is their job to get the younger guys to do the same.
The leadership by the upperclassmen will be a huge factor in the game. When we were down 24-7 at halftime in 2002, there were a lot of juniors and seniors that spoke their mind in the locker room. However, it is most important that they lead on the field. They need to play with intensity and emotion and make the plays to lead the way for the rest of the team.
CN: As a special teams veteran, what are the specific areas the Cyclones must clean up from last year's Iowa game to be successful Saturday? What kind of feel for the special teams do you have after the season opener?
Whitver: There is no doubt that the Cyclones need to be outstanding all day with their punt team. Having two punts blocked last year against the Hawkeyes is inexcusable. Without those two blocks, it is a whole different game. If you look at the statistics, Iowa State outgained the Hawkeyes by over 100 yards and had over 10 more first downs. But that is why they say stats are for losers.
I expect special teams to play a huge part in this game. With such good defenses, one team will probably score on special teams to give them an advantage. A blocked punt or a long return can really change the shape of a game.
There are two special teams that can lose you ballgames, the punt team and the kickoff team. If you are not sound in those two areas, you take the risk of getting a punt blocked, getting a punt returned for a touchdown, or getting a kickoff returned for a touchdown. The team that does a better job in these two areas will have a big advantage.
That being said, in a close, defensive game, the PAT/Field Goal team could potentially decide the game. This is a huge question mark for both teams. Both teams struggled quite a bit in their opener. If Tony Yelk is healthy, it could give Iowa State a huge advantage. He is a fifth-year senior that has kicked under pressure many times in his career, and I would expect him to have an outstanding senior year. If he doesn't play, it is a push with the two freshman kickers. That comes down to who can have ice in his veins during crunch time.
CN: What problems do the Hawkeye defense present to a young offensive group?
Whitver: Historically, Iowa has not run a very complicated defense. They run what they are good at and it is not much of a secret what they are going to do. So as far as complicated schemes and Bob Stoops-like surprises, you don't see much of that against the Hawkeyes. That is the good news.
The bad news is that Iowa is very good at the schemes they run. They are a team that tries to out-physical their opponent and will come after you for 60 minutes. Iowa doesn't give up many points because there are not very many teams that can stand up to Iowa's toughness.
I think it is definitely a case where Iowa State should be more worried about the physical aspect of Iowa's defense, as opposed to the mental part. If the Cyclones offensive line can match Iowa's front seven, they will have success.
CN: Explain the different philosophies the Iowa and Northern Iowa defenses employ, and how you think offensive coordinator Barney Cotton will try to attack it?
Whitver: I think that you will see Iowa State throwing the ball a little bit more in this game. While Iowa State can line up and run right at UNI, it is not as easy against a defense like Iowa's.
Even though Iowa State will need to run the ball to be successful, they will probably get most of their yards through the air. Bret Meyer and Austin Flynn will need to step up in order for Iowa State to put a lot of points on the board.
CN: Do you think this will be a game dominated by the offenses or defenses? Why do you believe that?
Whitver: I think it is fairly obvious that the defenses are the main story going into the game. Not only are they the top two defenses in the country statistically (at least for now), but both teams are going to live off their defenses all year. Both offenses are extremely inexperienced, and could have a tough time moving the ball.
I would expect that this would be a game that is going to be decided by the defenses, particularly which defense can force turnovers and get their offense in scoring situations.
CN: What specific offensive plays and schemes will John Skladany's defense need to focus on in preparation?
Whitver: I think the biggest thing that Coach Skladany's defense has to do is shut down the run. Iowa is known for running the ball and they place a lot of emphasis on controlling the line of scrimmage. If Iowa State can't stop the running game, they could be in for a long afternoon. If Iowa is running the ball, that takes a lot of pressure off of their young quarterback and fairly inexperienced receivers.
On the other hand, if Iowa State is slowing down Iowa's run, that puts an awful lot of pressure on a quarterback who has only started one game in his career. Iowa lives off of running the ball and throwing play-action passes, and if Iowa State is stopping the run, it takes away most of Iowa's offense.
I would expect Iowa State to try to put a lot of pressure on Drew Tate, blitzing freely in passing situations. I think the Cyclones best bet is to focus on stopping the run and making a young quarterback and young receivers beat them.
CN: Finally, what are some keys to a victory in Iowa City on Saturday? Feel free to elaborate on each key.
Whitver: The three main keys to a Cyclone victory in Iowa City on Saturday are quarterback play, special teams play, and mental toughness. While 90% of college football games are decided by the offensive and defensive lineman, the three things I mentioned above will play a huge roll in a victory.
Special teams killed the Cyclones last year, giving Iowa two easy touchdowns. In a low scoring game, whatever team has the better special teams play will probably come out on top. If Iowa State can score points, or set up scores on special teams, they will have a much better chance of winning. I think the two kickers will also play an important part. In a tight, defensive game, every point is critical.
The quarterback play is very essential in this game. I would expect both defenses to focus on shutting down the run. If this is the case, it will be up to the young quarterbacks on both teams to move the ball. It is important that either Flynn or Meyer becomes comfortable on the field and leads the offense.
It is critical that the Cyclones come into Iowa City believing they can win. It will be an extremely hostile environment, especially because the Hawkeye fans have not seen their team beat the Cyclones in Kinnick since Troy Davis was in the backfield. With so many young players on the field for the Cyclones, they will need to block out the distractions before and during the game.
Many of Iowa State's key players have never even played on the road, let alone in a game like this. In any rivalry, there is going to be adversity for both teams. The team that can overcome the adversity, stay mentally tough, and continue to make plays will win this game. I expect Coach Mac to have the troops ready to go and I expect this game to go down to the wire.