Iowa takes first big step on rough road slate

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The Big Ten schedule-makers haven't been particularly kind to Iowa the last decade or so, and they saved the biggest challenge for 2009.

In Kirk Ferentz's 11 seasons as Hawkeyes head coach, Iowa has started Big Ten play on the road nine times. Ferentz jokingly calls the road openers a tradition, though he wouldn't mind breaking it after all these years.

The trips haven't been easy. Iowa opened at No. 18 Michigan in 2004, at No. 8 Ohio State in 2005 and at No. 9 Wisconsin in 2007. This season's Big Ten opener called for a visit to No. 5 Penn State.

So how did the Hawkeyes respond to their latest league-opening road test? By sending a message to the schedule-makers and the rest of the Big Ten.

Bring. It. On.

"It really gives us a lot of confidence," running back Adam Robinson said after Iowa's 21-10 victory at Beaver Stadium. "We know we're a team who makes a lot of mistakes, but we correct those mistakes from week to week. And we know if we play together, we can compete with anybody."

In the short term, the "who" mattered most for Iowa on Saturday night. The Hawkeyes took down a top 5 team and vaulted from unranked to No. 13 nationally.

In the long term, the "where" and the "how" will truly serve Iowa as it aims for a Big Ten title, and possibly more. Penn State had lost only two home games since 2004, both to top 5 opponents (Michigan and Ohio State).

Nittany Lions fans turned out in force for the Whitehouse, many wearing T-shirts with Iowa crossed out and the message "Pay Backs Are Hell," a reference to last year's Iowa victory at Kinnick Stadium. If the noise wasn't bad enough, Iowa had to contend with nasty weather throughout the game.

"It was a great football environment," Ferentz said. "We knew it would be. We asked our team to enjoy that, too. This is pretty rare and pretty unique, so if you like football at all, that's got to get your blood going.

"This is what football is all about, a great football crowd, a great football tradition here. If that doesn't bring out the best in you, maybe you shouldn't be playing."

It brought out the best in Iowa, which didn't flinch even after Penn State struck for a 79-yard touchdown on its first offensive play.

"We set the tone for our season," linebacker Jeremiha Hunter said. "It's just another opportunity we want to take."

There might not be another team in the country with a tougher conference road slate than Iowa. The Hawkeyes still have trips to Wisconsin (Oct. 17), Michigan State (Oct. 24) and Ohio State (Nov. 14).

While Iowa owns Penn State this decade, the Hawkeyes have had a tougher time winning in Madison, East Lansing and Columbus. Iowa has dropped four of its last six at Wisconsin, four straight at Michigan State and five straight at Ohio State, stretching back to 1995.

Besides the departure of Doak Walker Award winner Shonn Greene, the schedule was the biggest knock against Iowa entering the season.

Ferentz even referred to it on preseason media day, when he said, "It's really conceivable we have a better team than last year and have a record that doesn't indicate that, because winning on the road is tougher, there's no question about that."

After the Penn State victory, Iowa can view the schedule as an opportunity rather than an obstacle.

"This is great momentum for us going into the Big Ten season," defensive tackle Christian Ballard said. "It definitely gives us some confidence, but we can't just rally on this win by itself. We've got to know there are going to be really tough games in there, we're going to have some ups and downs.

"But this is a good step for us. We're going in the right direction."