AMES _ As we drove up Interstate 35 Saturday morning, I turned to my passengers and said "12 miles to hell." An eerie feeling was hanging over me from the past disappointments of Iowa traveling to Ames. Even though the Hawkeyes were heavy favorites, I was extremely uncomfortable.
I walked up the path surrounding the stadium and into the elevator to the press box. I thought, "Man, I'm glad Dan McCarney isn't on the Cyclone bench." He wouldn't be pacing the sidelines injecting fire into his team.
No, Iowa State's new head coach Gene Chizik didn't know about this intense rivalry that often is lost on the rest of the nation. That intangible edge enjoyed under Danny Mac would be reduced.
On the other side, Iowa shook off its uninspired play of 2006 with two impressive wins to start the season. The edge had returned.
I really started to believe my reasoning as I sat in my press box seat. Iowa looked business-like in warm-ups and I didn't get the sense that the ISU crowd was feeling very confident in its team.
Then, the nightmare resurfaced. The Cyclones looked like the undefeated team favored by almost three touchdowns, not a team that lost to an average MAC program and a I-AA squad from instate.
"We came out kind of flat," Iowa guard Julian VanderVelde said. "We weren't really playing together."
Said running back Damian Sims: "We understand why we lost the game. We didn't match their intensity. They wanted it more."
Came out flat?
Didn't match their intensity?
They wanted it more?
Let that sink in a little Hawkeye fans. It has to sting.
I could see it from the press box just like I did in seven of the last 10 years when, for the most part, Iowa has trotted out the better team on paper, but played in a fog for at least part of the game and walked off defeated. It's like a very weird episode of the Twilight Zone where the Hawkeyes' bodies are inhabited by aliens.
As hard as it is to admit, the Cyclones do want this game more than Iowa. There is no other way to explain the intensity with which they play and the edge that gives them over the their rival.
Although nobody in the Hawkeye locker room wanted to admit that they took Iowa State lightly, there was a sense that they heard the media and the fans painting the Cyclones as an inferior team.
"They're not as bad as everybody said they were," Sims said. "They played better today. There are no ifs ands or buts about it. Now, if we played them 10 times in a season, I feel like we'd win a lot more. But they played a better game today and they deserved to win."
Sims admitted that Iowa brings the best out of the Cyclones.
"It's just something about this game where they rise to the occasion," he said. "I'm not going to say we take it lightly, but…We didn‘t match their intensity in the first half. We did in the second half, but it wasn‘t enough."
No, it wasn't. And playing well in the first half of the ‘02 game wasn't enough. And, ‘05 was just a disaster from start to finish.
"I don't know why we started like that," Seth Olsen said of Saturday's game. "I don't have an explanation for it. They were ready to go from the kickoff, at least from an offensive standpoint. The defense played phenomenal. This one is on us."
I agree. On Iowa State's four first-half field goals, it started on its own 43, 35, 48 and 36. The defense performed admirably in the road.
I know people are ripping defensive coordinator Norm Parker for getting stuck with linebacker Mike Klinkenborg in one-on-one coverage with Iowa State receiver Phillip Bates. It turned out to be the key play on the winning drive. It served as a bad reminder from the past.
The play didn't work. Parker ultimately deserved the blame. He called it. But he decided to send six rushers at quarterback Bret Myer. They didn't get there. I didn't mind the aggressive call.
Pinning the loss on Parker for that one play is ridiculous. It came at a key moment. It didn't lose the game. The defense was on the field a lot.
The inability of Iowa's offense to generate a first-half point lost the game. It staggered around without any rhythm. It missed blitz pickup, basic blocks, passes, and quarterback Jake Christensen looked very unsettled.
"He looked like a young quarterback playing in a hostile environment for the first time," said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, who lost for the sixth time in nine games against Iowa State.
Ferentz felt like his team struggled with crowd noise and showed its youth on offense. On top of it, the Cyclones pressured the visitors.
"They did things that gave us trepidation," Ferentz said. "We played better in the second half. When you have inexperienced players, and I'm not throwing out alibis here, but it's going to take some time (to get going). "
There was no time on Saturday. Iowa State, with new players all over the place and a new coaching staff, was ready from the opening kickoff. There was no excuse for the Hawkeyes not to be.
Some Iowa fans will try to hide the pain by saying this is Iowa State's Super Bowl. They'll say that the game means more to the Cyclones.
You know what? They're right. For the first time I'm willing to admit that they're right.
Iowa might go on to enjoy a better season than its rival will. In fact, if you compare schedules, it very well could.
Right now, it doesn't matter. The Hawkeyes leave here without bragging rights…again.
It would be nice to enjoy another January bowl while Iowa State stays home or ends up on blue turf somewhere. You are judged by the season and not one game.
But, honestly, this is getting old. The Iowa coaches need to find a way to their players to match the opponents' intensity in this rivalry. Winning once every three years in this series grinds on the nerves of Hawkeye fans. They can do better. They must do better.