COLUMBUS, Ohio — Winning a game at Ohio Stadium requires a dependable set of ears, as well as brains and brawn.
Any attempt to topple Ohio State, its star-studded recruits and intimidating history includes managing the deafening crowd noise — a helmet-rattling din unlike almost all others in college football.
The stadium perched along the Olentangy River seats more than 102,000. As teams drive into the historic north end zone of stadium known as The Horseshoe, the sound pools and builds into a play-execution nightmare for visitors.
The last Iowa team to handle the high-decibel challenge before this season was 1991.
“I’ve played in the Rose Bowl, I’ve played at Michigan, I’ve played in the Orange Bowl,” said Alan Cross, the Hawkeye tight end whose 61-yard touchdown catch helped shape the 16-9 victory. “Ohio Stadium was the loudest place I’ve played in, for sure.”
Rob Baxley, an all-Big Ten offensive tackle drafted by the NFL’s then-Phoenix Cardinals, said fans made operating an offense nearly impossible at times.
When the team moved within the 10-yard line during a drive in the 1991 game, quarterback Matt Rodgers changed the play at the line of scrimmage. Rodgers, it seemed, was the one person who knew what was coming next.
“In our audible system, it started with an odd or even number and we’d switch it up each year or whatever,” said Baxley, 44, who sells real estate in Sacramento, Calif. “When Matt came to the line, he said something like ‘2-white-2’ but all I heard was the first ‘2.’ So I knew it was an audible, but had no idea what the play was.
“The guard (Mike Ferroni) is yelling at the center (Mike Devlin) and we’re all yelling as loud as we could, but no one had a clue. Then you’d have to watch the ball for the snap, because you couldn’t hear the cadence.
“It’s the loudest place I’ve ever played, bar none.”
The 1991 game was extraordinarily emotional for Iowa, a day after a campus shooting orchestrated by disgruntled doctoral student Gang Lu left five others dead.
Iowa removed all its helmet decals in a show of support for the university.
“Black Saturday, as we refer to it,” Baxley said. “I can remember is wanting to go out and getting a win for the folks in Iowa. Really, though, any time you play at Ohio State, it’s a big game.”
In addition to the talented roster routinely assembled at Ohio State, the crowd flexs vocal chords to influence outcomes. The high-volume assistance is one reason Iowa entered this season with just two wins (1987 is the other) since 1959.
When the margin for error in a game at Ohio State feels as thin as a catwalk model, a single play can help transform a potential loss into a memorable victory. Cross recalled devoting practice time to the play that became his scarlet-and-gray-silencing touchdown.
“You’ve got to credit our coaching staff,” said Cross, 43, who lives in Iowa City. “They’d done the homework and discovered a tendency on 3rd-and-short. They would normally go man (coverage). If the tight end stayed in to block, though, the strong safety would blitz.
“When we practiced it, I didn’t think there was any way it was ever going to work in a game. But we motioned everybody to the other side and everybody went with them, other than the safety. I stayed to block, then released. (Rodgers) got it over the blitzing safety.
“I was just hoping I didn’t trip and fall because I was wide open. Those games sometimes come down to one or two key plays.”
Bryce Miller can be reached at 515-284-8288 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Bryce_A_Miller