The Huskies run a 4-3 defense that wants to attack rather than react. D-linemen are headed up field with eyes on the QB. That worked really well against the Hawkeyes last season, when a veteran front four racked up six sacks against the Hawkeyes. This season, NIU has lost three starters on the D-line, but do return tackle Ken Bishop (6-1, 308) and end Joe Windsor (6-0, 236). End George Rainey, who had 1.5 tackles for loss in the MAC title game, also saw time. Obviously, this is an undersized group. Junior Jamaal Bass punches in. The weakside linebacker has 145 tackles since he cracked the starting lineup two seasons ago. Safety Jimmie Ward, a two-time all-MAC pick, led NIU with 104 tackles last season.
With a brand-new starting quarterback, Iowa's running game will have to guide Iowa until Jake Rudock knows the map. Iowa will use four running backs and probably pare that down as the season and/or today's game goes. Junior Mark Weisman (6-0, 238) led Iowa in rushing in 2012 (815 yards, eight TDs) and will get first crack at being the "guy." Junior Damon Bullock (6-0, 200) and sophomore Jordan Canzeri (5-9, 187) will counter Weisman's straight-ahead, brutish style. True freshman LeShun Daniels (6-0, 220) impressed enough during fall camp to jump into the plans. He'll be Weisman Light.
Iowa's offensive line has potential, but it's too early to put it on the Wall of Honor. Left tackle Brandon Scherff (6-5, 315) is an aggressive mauler and, after missing the final five games of 2012 with a dislocated ankle and broken fibula, is highly motivated. Right tackle Brett Van Sloten is positioned to be a two-year starter. The inside trio of center Austin Blythe (who moves inside from guard) and guards Conor Boffeli and Andrew Donnal or Jordan Walsh are relatively new. There will be some growing pains there. Still, lots at stake for Iowa's running game and it will strive to give Rudock a steady platform.
This will be Rudock's first snap in college. The 6-3, 205-pounder is incredibly smart. He's a premed major who wants to be a pediatric cardiologist. What you want to know is if he can run the veer option. Well, Iowa has shown some of that during the spring and summer. What is Rudock's arm like and how does he see a defense? Those are up in the air. We've seen glimpses in the spring game and summer scrimmage, but the truth is, no one who hasn't been filming Iowa's practices can pinpoint Rudock's strengths with certainty. On this level, anyway.
Tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz has resume. WR Kevonte Martin-Manley led Iowa in receptions last season, so he's a somewhat known commodity. The rest of Iowa's pass catchers? You know the whole passing game needs to be better. Iowa was in the 100s in every passing category that mattered last season, including 118th in plays of 10-yards plus (132). Offensive coordinator Greg Davis talked about explosive plays in the offseason. He's set the bar at nine a game, with five in the pass and four in the run. Davis defined explosive as 12-yard runs and 16-yard passes.
NIU plays man and zone coverage and tries to disguise which one as much as possible. Safeties Ward and Dechane Durante might be NIU's best defensive players. The Huskies return three of their top four corners from '12. Seniors Sean Evans and Jhony Faustin and sophomore Marlon Moore played in 10 or more games last season and combined for four turnovers.
Iowa's passing game is a wait-and-see proposition. It has so much to prove.
Advantage: Northern Illinois
Everything Northern Illinois does starts with quarterback Jordan Lynch. He rolled up nearly 5,000 yards total offense and accounted for 44 TDs during a 2012 that saw the Chicago native finish seventh in the Heisman Trophy voting. Lynch is linebacker-tough and a possible safety in the NFL. Who knows? With read-option offenses on the rise in the NFL, maybe he's QB material on the next level (6-0, 220 pounds). Lynch brilliantly triggered the Huskies' read-option offense against Mid-American Conference opponents. In NIU's two matchups against BCS teams -- Iowa in his first start and Florida State in the Orange Bowl -- Lynch was bottled up. The Hawkeyes held him to a season-low 173 yards, but couldn't put away NIU and needed a fourth-quarter stop and TD to pull out an 18-17 win. Lynch has made no secret that he wants a BCS pelt.
NIU has some uncertainty at running back. Senior running back Akeem Daniels (foot) has been ruled out for the game. He'll be replaced by junior Cameron Stingily, a 6-1, 244-pounder with more career special teams tackles than carries (one for 5 yards). Stingily has, however, had a strong camp in DeKalb. He'll be balanced by sophomore Keith Harris (5-8, 181), who, as a true freshman last season, had 238 yards on 55 carries.
The Huskies rotated seven players in the offensive line last season and return all five starters. The group is led by senior guard Jared Volk (6-3, 315), who missed last year's Iowa game with a leg injury. This group helped trigger Lynch's 1,815 rushing yards, the NCAA record for rushing yards by a QB.
Iowa's rush defense allowed 162.8 rushing yards a game in '12. That was the most since 2000. Other trends that show slippage: From 2010 to 2006, the Hawkeyes ranked No. 2, 5, 2, and 3 in the Big Ten in rush defense. In the last two seasons, it’s been No. 7 and 7. The difference in yards from 2012 and 2011 to 2010 and 2009 is 1,945 and 2,028 to 1,320 and 1,607. That’s 300 to 700 more rushing yards the last two seasons. That’s 32 rush TDs allowed vs. 22.
That's not Iowa defense. The Hawkeyes front seven faces a giant test in Lynch and NIU's skilled read-option. NIU -- mostly out of the pistol with varying tempo changes -- will get some here.
Advantage: Northern Illinois
NIU lost two of its top three wide receivers from '12. Junior Tommylee Lewis (5-7, 155), who caught 48 passes for 539 yards and five TDs, leads a young group with sophomore Juwan Brescacin (6-4, 219) and sophomore Angelo Sebastiano (6-0, 205) looking to contribute. The tight end hasn't been a factor in NIU's passing game.
What kind of passer is Lynch? He finished with a 60.2 completion percentage, but against Iowa and Florida State that dropped to 37.5 and 36.6 percent, respectively. Those are numbers you know the senior is eager to erase. “Our motto this year is ‘Finish the Fight,’" Lynch told ESPN.com. “It’s not good enough anymore to come close to these Big Ten teams or BCS teams and lose by a point. That’s not good enough for us anymore. We want to finish these games and walk out with a victory.”
Lynch mentioned "wrinkles" in the offense. He mentioned more checking in the passing game and a the solid grasp he has on it now after 14 starts.
Defensive coordinator Phil Parker added secondary coach duties during the offseason. This might prove to be the most important coaching move Kirk Ferentz has made in the last couple of years. Parker coached Iowa's secondary for 13 seasons before assuming coordinator duties only in '12. After Darrell Wilson left for Rutgers, Parker moved in. The players approve. "I just believe it’s coaching that’s got us to the point where we are right now,” senior cornerback B.J. Lowery said. “It’s all on Coach Parker. It’s really him.”
NIU senior Mathew Sims is one of the better kickers in the MAC. He's made 37 of 50 field goals and last season made 7 of 9 from 40 to 50-plus yards (long of 54). Junior Tyler Wedel takes over punter after serving as the kickoff specialist the last two seasons, knocking back 36 touchbacks. Lewis and Sebastiano are the likely kick returners. Lewis has returned three kickoffs for TDs and has finished in the top 40 nationally in kick return average in 2011 and '12. Sebastiano averaged 6.3 yards a punt return last season.
Special teams was the impetus for one of the staff moves Kirk Ferentz made during the offseason, replacing long-time special teams and running back assistant Lester Erb with Chris White. White spent four years as a special teams assistant with the Minnesota Vikings. He's pledged to bring those schemes to the Hawkeyes. White will already have kicker Mike Meyer, a four-year starter who's made 45 of 58 field goals in his career. Ferentz said consistency is still the quest for sophomore punter Connor Kornbrath (37.9 yards per punt last season as a true freshman). Senior Jordan Cotton led the Big Ten with 28.21 yards a kick return in 2012. Canzeri will join him, and it looks as though Martin-Manley will return punts.
1) All the chips — Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey, who took over after Dave Doeren left for North Carolina State prior to the Orange Bowl, has come out and said the Huskies are the ones no one from the Big Ten wanted. It's a solid card for a MAC team to play. Iowa finished 4-8 last season and is has had that hung on them by nearly every national prognosticator. No respect for Iowa, either. There are your motivations for today. 2) Been there, done that — A lot of you were there for Iowa's 18-17 victory over NIU at Soldier Field last season. Some of you might've seen the Huskies opposite Florida State in the Orange Bowl. Yes, the very same Orange Bowl that Iowa won in 2010. Northern won't be intimidated walking into Kinnick Stadium. 3) Under pressure — Northern Illinois is the team getting votes in the polls. Iowa is the team digging out of the rubble of a failed 2012. That won't matter if NIU wins. The national sports shows will see, and most certainly trumpet, MAC team winning on Big Ten turf. The stakes are higher for Iowa. A lose today and a torches and pitchforks store will go up on Melrose. Advantage: Northern Illinois
The wrath of the heat forces both teams to dip into reserves. The Big Ten team should have the deeper bench, right? The Hawkeyes already planned on rotating eight D-linemen. It might have to go 10 and maybe do the same with the O-line. The heat factor should take a bigger bite out of the Huskies.
The Huskies can take some of the pressure off Lynch. Northern will be asking a lot out of whomever ends up as the main running back. If Iowa lets him, Lynch will ride QB draw and QB power all the way down the field behind a veteran O-line. That wasn't enough last season. Lynch's game surely will have matured, but his mates will have to be along for the ride.
PREDICTION: Iowa 24, Northern Illinois 13