CHICAGO — Entering a season, there hasn’t been as important an opener for Iowa football in Kirk Ferentz’s 15 seasons as the one in five weeks against Northern Illinois.
Here are the two possible scenarios: Start with a win over last year’s Orange Bowl team from the Mid-American Conference, and sunshine again finds its way to Hawkeye football after a dark 2012.
But lose to the Huskies? Oh, the humanity! The season begins by digging out of an 0-1 hole, and that’s before encountering the Big Ten gauntlet.
This isn’t debuting against Maine or Eastern Illinois or Tennessee Tech.
“We’ve had softer openers,” Iowa senior linebacker James Morris said Thursday at the Big Ten’s football media days, “but I’m not really a big fan of the concept of tuneup games. I like big games. I think games should be fun, should be exciting. There should be competition and there should be a lot at stake.
“And that’s the case for this game, certainly. … The stakes are high, the risk-reward is bigger. But at the same time, there is that reward. So I like it.”
One state to the west, Northern Illinois’ ascent to a 12-1 record and an Orange Bowl berth was a curiosity. The Huskies, who lost 18-17 to Iowa in Chicago’s Soldier Field to start the season, were a BCS bowl team? Quarterback Jordan Lynch was a star? Other than Lynch’s 73-yard touchdown dash that gave NIU a 17-9 lead in the third-quarter — the Hawkeyes bottled and capped him.
Making his first college start, Lynch completed just 6 of 16 passes for 54 yards. Take away his scoring run, and he rushed 17 times for a mere 46 yards.
“But he did have that run,” said Morris, “He made a good play. He just kept banging away, and one busts out. He has that capability.”
Those in Iowa who vividly recall last year’s Iowa-NIU game, and those who judge him just by the Huskies’ 31-10 loss to Florida State in the Orange Bowl, may still need convincing.
But all who have served time in the MAC recently swear by Lynch. The man did pass for 3,138 yards and 25 touchdowns and rush for 1,815 yards and 19 TDs.
“Lynch is phenomenal,” said Purdue Coach Darrell Hazell, who coached Kent State last year. NIU beat Hazell’s Golden Flashes in the MAC’s title game, 44-37 in two overtimes.
“He made so many plays in that championship game against us. They’re a well-coached football team, but he’s different. There’s something very special about that guy. He’s the guy you would take to war with you.”
Minnesota Coach Jerry Kill brought Lynch to Northern Illinois when Kill coached there.
“(Chicago Mount Carmel High Coach) Frank Lenti called me and said I better take this guy. You never argue with Frank. We took him. He’s a great player.”
But if you rank the QBs Iowa will face this year, Lynch might only be fifth behind (in no particular order) Braxton Miller of Ohio State, Devin Gardner of Michigan, Kain Colter of Northwestern, and Taylor Martinez of Nebraska.
The latter three beat Iowa last year. Gardner and Colter gutted Iowa’s defense. So did Indiana’s Cameron Coffman, Purdue’s Robert Marve, Penn State’s Matt McGloin, and another MAC quarterback, Ryan Radcliffe of Central Michigan.
Lynch did not. But Morris fairly noted “I think when we played him he was just kind of coming into his own. He was a much-different player at the end of the year than at the beginning.”
The Hawkeyes and Huskies were repeatedly linked last December. ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit was blunt in saying he thought NIU had no business being in the Orange Bowl, and used this as part of his reasoning:
“Iowa’s the worst team in the Big Ten. They lost to Iowa.”
For the Hawkeyes to restore some luster to their national image, beating Northern Illinois on Aug. 31 would be a good first step. A loss, though, would bring out a lot of sharp verbal and written pitchforks.
Morris is right. This opener is no tuneup. Iowa better be well-tuned from the start.
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