James Franklin making sure Nittany Lions are ready for Big Ten opener

22Nits
Penn State coach James Franklin has told his team about Iowa’s pink visitors locker room (shown in a 2005 file photo). AP

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Penn State coach James Franklin is a perfectionist when it comes to detail in preparation for the team’s next game, and that routine was ramped up this week as he readied the fourth-ranked Nittany Lions for their Big Ten opener and first road game of 2017, Saturday night at unbeaten Iowa.

It wasn’t just the X’s and O’s. Franklin told his players of the tight confines along the sideline at Kinnick Stadium, where the fans sit literally a few feet behind the bench. He had the Lions practice amid ear-splitting noise to simulate the loud crowd and band. And he also informed them about the pink locker room that Iowa provides for the visiting team.

“The coaches are preparing us for all those things, all the way down to the pink locker room,” offensive tackle Andrew Nelson said. “He didn’t want us walking in there going, ‘Oh wow, look at this, the locker room is pink.’ So he told us the Sunday after we played Georgia State, showed us pictures, told us how it’s going to be just so that we could prepare for every aspect of the game going in.”

According to Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz, the idea for a pink locker room came from either former head coach Hayden Fry — a psychology major in college who thought pink was a calming, soothing color that would keep opponents from getting fired up — or a facilities official who went to buy paint for the locker room and got pink at a low price.

Ferentz said that eight or 10 years ago, “there were some real rat-hole locker rooms in our league for visitors.” That’s not the case anymore, at least in Iowa City.

“We’ve got one of the nicer visitor’s locker rooms in the country,” he said. “It’s air-conditioned. It’s spacious. At least it’s a good conversation piece.”

Because the Lions’ last trip to Kinnick came in 2012, no one on the current roster or coaching staff has ever been there. Defensive end Shareef Miller said he asked some members of the athletic training staff about the close quarters on the sideline.

“I heard the fans are right behind the bench,” the former George Washington High School star said. “They said, ‘Don’t put your helmet next to the fans or they’re going to take it.’ So I’m not going to do that.”

As for the noise, Franklin turned up the volume during practice on recordings of cheering fans and the Iowa band belting out the team’s fight song.

“It’s just trying to get our guys as prepared as possible, playing the same type of music, crowd noise, whatever it may be,” he said. “So I thought we handled it pretty well. We’ve been doing it since the beginning of camp.”

Then there’s the actual game itself. The Nittany Lions come in sporting gaudy statistics on both sides of the football through three games, while the Hawkeyes have been tough against the run and have held onto the football on offense. They will be the toughest opponents that Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley have seen to date.

It should be a good game, and a thrilling atmosphere.

“I’m honestly excited to go into Iowa and see the atmosphere those guys have,” Nelson said. “Everyone says Beaver Stadium is the greatest atmosphere in college football, but that’s always for us. So it’s interesting to go to places like Ohio State, like Iowa, and be in those similar atmospheres and be on a different side of it.”

Penn State at Iowa

Saturday, 7:30 p.m., Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City, Iowa

TV: 6ABC. Radio: WNTP-AM (990), WNPV-AM (1440).

Records: Penn State, 3-0, ranked No. 4 in the Associated Press poll. Iowa, 3-0. This is the first Big Ten game for both teams.

Coaches: Penn State, James Franklin (28-15 in 4th season at Penn State, 52-30 overall). Iowa, Kirk Ferentz (137-92 in 19th season at Iowa, 149-113 overall).

History: Penn State leads, 14-12.

Last meeting: Penn State, 41-14, Nov. 5, 2016, at Beaver Stadium.

Talking points

  • Home-field victories are not a given in this series. The Nittany Lions, who won in their last visit to Iowa City in 2012, are 8-5 on the road against the Hawkeyes but only 6-7 at home.
  • Don’t forget what Iowa did last season in its last home game against a top-five team. One week after being pounded at Beaver Stadium, the Hawkeyes upset No. 3 Michigan, 14-13, giving Penn State a clear path to the Big Ten East title.
  • With his 85-yard touchdown pass last week, Saquon Barkley is the only active FBS player with a touchdown run and a touchdown pass of at least 80 yards in his career.
  • One of the neat new traditions in college football happens at the end of the first quarter at Kinnick Stadium. Fans turn around and wave to pediatric patients looking out at the stadium from the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital across the street.
  • Like Barkley, senior running back Akrum Wadley, one of two Hawkeyes from Newark, N.J., can do a lot with a football in his hands. He is 12th in the nation in all-purpose yards (170.0 per game) and actually averages more yards per reception (25.3) than Barkley (21.9).
  • Penn State’s Saeed Blacknall, who set a Big Ten championship-game record last year for receiving yards with 155, caught his first pass of the season last week, finishing with three catches for 64 yards and a touchdown.
  • Look for senior Brendan Mahon, owner of the most career starts among the Lions’ offensive linemen, to return to the lineup at right guard, with Steven Gonzalez going back to his old position at left guard.