Iowa running back has become a national story because it is a conveyor belt that leads to nowhere. Since 2008, Iowa has lost 10 running backs before their eligibility was finished and had four ACL injuries. The Huskies are re-shaping themselves into a defensive-first team. They return 10 starters, including defensive end Sean Progar (6-2, 254), who had 11 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks last season. It's not automatic that Iowa's offensive line will be dominant, replacing three starters including both tackles. Still, head coach Kirk Ferentz seems confident. Outside linebacker Tyrone Clark (5-10, 220) returns after missing 2011 for undisclosed personal reasons. He led NIU with four interceptions in 2010. Last season, NIU coach Dave Doeren flipped between the Huskies' base 4-3 and 3-4. Against Iowa, you'd think it'd be a 4-3, with the idea of being more stout against the run. But who knows? Iowa has a new offensive coordinator. Advantage: Iowa
NIU's secondary has made several position changes that might reflect uncertainty. Junior cornerback Rashaan Melvin (6-2, 193, five interceptions in 29 career games) is the only starter to return. The other corner is Demetrius Stone (5-10, 203), who started at free safety last season. The Huskies finished 11th in pass defense in the MAC last season and allowed 29 TD passes (115th in the country). First-year offensive coordinator Greg Davis has introduced a lot of "read and think" principles in the passing game. The trick here is Iowa's receivers have to see and read what QB James Vandenberg sees and reads. Wide receivers Kevonte Martin-Manley and Keenan Davis and tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz should form the core of Iowa's passing attack. If Fiedorowicz gets one-on-one with any of NIU's linebackers (who are listed at 5-10, 5-11, 5-10), it should be an easy jump ball. The big question for Iowa is do the receivers get bogged down reading the defense. Advantage: Iowa
The Huskies' O-line perfectly reflects the shifting sands that life in the MAC can be. Four of the five starters from an 11-win season that included victories in the MAC title game and the GoDaddy.com Bowl are gone. The fifth, center Logan Pegram, is out for the season with a broken leg. Iowa's defensive line shows what a string of NFL draftees and attrition can do to a unit. Junior end Dominic Alvis is the most experienced, but he's also on his way back from a torn ACL. Akeem Daniels (5-7, 183) is listed as the starter at tailback for NIU, but four players are in the two deep and Doeren has consistently said during camp that he likes the "tailback pool." It could be a committee approach. First-year defensive coordinator Phil Parker has said he won't leave a young, inexperienced D-line out to dry. Expect some aggressive run fits from middle linebacker James Morris and weakside linebacker Anthony Hitchens. Advantage: Iowa
Iowa's Greg Davis isn't the only first-year offensive coordinator in this game. Veteran coach Mike Dunbar will mirror Davis in that he will do what the Huskies do well. That remains to be seen, but whatever it is it will channel through junior quarterback Jordan Lynch, a 6-0, 216-pound runner who Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz described as " big, solid, sturdy guy." Dunbar will spread the field and turn tempo up and down. This should play to the strengths of receivers Martel Moore (6-0, 183) and Perez Ashford (5-11, 182). When Dunbar had success as Northwestern's offensive coordinator, he made a living off quick, veteran receivers. Phil Parker has talked about press, man-to-man coverage for corners Micah Hyde and B.J. Lowery. Now we'll see if he is serious. That would be an immediate departure from Norm Parker's adherence to zone during his 13 seasons at Iowa's defensive coordinator. Hyde and Lowery might be the most talented players on the field today. Advantage: Iowa
Either NIU punter Ryan Neir booted the ball really, really high or placed it really, really well or he punted from the Huskies' 40 a lot, because NIU was No. 2 in the nation in punt return defense, allowing just 10 yards on 10 returns. Conversely, the Huskies' kick return unit allowed 13 returns of 30 yards or more, which was 109th in the country. Iowa wasn't much better coming in 95th with 11 30-plus returns. Huskies kicker Mathew Sims returns. He made 20 of 28 field goals last season (ninth in the MAC). Kick returner Tommylee Lewis was fourth in the MAC with 25.17 yards a return, including 100- and 95-yard TDs against Toledo. True freshman Connor Kornbrath has won the punting job at Iowa. He averaged 39.5 yards a punt as a senior at Bridgeport (W.Va.). Junior kicker Mike Meyer begins his third season at Iowa with a 75.7 field goal percentage (28 of 37). Because Iowa has dipped heavily into true freshmen for special teams the last two seasons, the Hawkeyes should be more veteran in return and coverage units, which have been inconsistent. "Hopefully, we get off the rollercoaster," Ferentz said. "We’ve been on a little bit of a rollercoaster." Advantage: Northern Illinois
Three stand out immediately: 1) What does Soldier Field do to the voltage? It's a home game for Northern Illinois, which does have the nation's longest winning streak at nine games. The Huskies are proud of that and want to keep it going. On the flip side, it's really an Iowa home game, with hordes of Iowa grads descending from Chicago and the 'burbs. Iowa has sold out of its 20,000 allotment. The isn't a sellout. Soldier Field has a capacity of 61,500. 2) The field is notoriously sketchy. Last Saturday, Soldier played host to four prep football games. "Last time we were there [16-3 win over NIU in '07], it was a little bit hard, to say the least," Ferentz said. "There’s nothing we can do about it. We’ll play on whatever is there." 3) Will Hurricane Isaac sneak into Chicago? A driving rain would crimp Vandenberg and Iowa's passing game. Does Iowa have the muscle and the running back to simply shove its way past NIU? Advantage: Iowa
The Hawkeyes' defense can be at least a little opportunistic with turnovers and the offense moves the chains, by whatever means necessary. Iowa's defense will be interesting. You know a lot of the players, but what will they do? Will it be different? Will Phil Parker meld philosophy to the available talent?
QB Jordan Lynch gets in a groove and grinds out 275 yards of total offense. Iowa's defense found itself in trouble last season when it couldn't get off the field on third down (46 percent, 10th in the Big Ten). Lynch has the kind of skill set, above average runner and accurate passer (15 of 20 as a backup in '11), that has given Iowa headaches in the recent past.
PREDICTION: Iowa 31, Northern Illinois 21