IOWA CITY – Before the Penn State and Iowa players strap on their shoulder pads, lace up their spikes and run onto the field at Kinnick Stadium, they’ll have spent the week prior sharpening pencils, crossing out wrong answers and listening to lectures.
Life of a student-athlete, right? Not quite.
After they close the biology book, they open the playbook with both head coaches - Bill O’Brien at Penn State and Kirk Ferentz at Iowa - handing some of their players written exams.
It’s one thing, everybody can sit in a room and nod. Smarter guys will say yes sir, no sir, but that doesn’t mean they’re getting it,” Ferentz said. “That doesn’t really mean there’s communication going on. So it’s no different than being in a classroom. You want to not just give lectures, as good as you think your lectures may be, that doesn’t mean everyone is absorbing what you’re trying to espouse.”
They may be written or oral exams asking players about game different schemes the opponent’s offense or defenses run. It could be as simple as personnel, or as complicated as tendencies in a specific down and distance when the offense faces a certain coverage.
It’s a practice that has become almost customary among football teams no matter the level. O’Brien said players were tested in New England under Bill Belichick as well as in the college ranks when he worked under George O’Leary.
“It’s not what you know as a coach, it’s what you’re players know,” O’Brien said. “That’s how your players function. If you just stand up there as a coach and do all the talking, or don’t let your players talk, things like that, then you never really know what your players felt.”
Some are traditional exams, while others emphasize the priority of note taking – not just watching film but absorbing it. Either way, when the players take to the field, they see the results of putting in the time studying.
“It’s a big help. It’s like a guideline to studying,” Iowa wide receiver Kevonte Manley-Martin said. “When you’re watching film you have to pay attention to so many things, personnel, coverages, situations and things like that. The coaches do a very good job of guiding us through that.”
Imagine how many offensive landmarks in baseball would fall if the batter had fours strikes. That’s what Kirk Ferentz and Company are gameplaning for this weekend against Penn State. Only Army has gone for it more than the Nittany Lions and Louisiana-Monroe is the only team in the nation who has converted more fourth downs into first downs.
“Well, they have an extra down. It's like, you know, if you're a pitcher and the guy gets four strikes instead of three,” Ferentz said. “It's a little bigger of a challenge.”
In all this season, Penn State attempted 20 fourth down conversion, moving the chains 13 times. The Nittany Lions, like the Hawkeyes play their seventh game Saturday, which averages out to more than three fourth-down attempts a game.
“Maybe in high school,” defensive back Micah Hyde said of a team he can remember going for it more than PSU. “My team did it a lot just because we felt we could get the first down, but other than that, I really don’t see that a lot.”
Since it isn’t common, the key strain on the defense is mental. Third down is no longer the final play of the drive. A stop doesn’t mean they can let their guard down.
“I just think we need to be mentally ready for four downs instead of three,” linebacker Anthony Hitchens said. “The defense has to be alert at all times.”
The normal pregame routine for Iowa is to arrive at the stadium an hour before kickoff. On most Saturday that means a 10 a.m. arrival.
Saturday against Penn State, it moves to eight hours later.
“It’s going to be long because the 2:30 one felt long,” Hitchens said. “It will be a long one but we just need to stay mentally strong.”
The scheduled kickoff is 7 p.m. which gives the players a long day inside the hotel waiting to take the field. Most times the team shows a movie. Since it’s Saturday, there’s also a wide variety of football to keep entertained.
Others will keep themselves occupied.
“I personally, I like to get on my computer when I’m in the hotel room. A computer, you can do a lot of things on a computer, kill a lot of time,” Manley-Martin said. “Just to pass time so I wont go crazy and lost my energy, I just do something that I normally do.”
Monday night Penn State corner back Stephon Morris tweeted "Please stop looking ahead to next week. This is a huge game, we hate them they hate us. We're focused on Iowa that's it. One game at a time."
O’Brien wasn’t impressed, “You know what I hate? I hate Twitter.”
Ferentz isn’t the biggest fan either. Iowa players do not have public Twitter accounts and won’t be looking to social media for motivation.“That’s not really huge to us,” Hyde said. “We don’t have Twitter accounts around here. We’re not on Twitter. We don’t follow that. We know it’s going to be a hard fought game on Saturday. It’s a Big Ten game, every game is like that. As far as the trash talk and stuff like that, we don’t pay attention to it.”