It's finally here. The first week is always the hardest with these sorts of thing. It's a lot of baseless speculation and hard not to fall into the same ol' "win the battle up front," "run the ball well," "win special teams" keys to the game. This year also brings some of the same sort of unknown feelings as the last. I expect we'll see a new look on offense, but I'm not exactly sure what it'll be. With some more coaching changes, it'll be interesting to see how different positions have progressed...and with Coach White how special teams have maybe changed. So more than any key factors to the game, I'm just excited to see what this team looks like. But oh, there will still be the factors. All four of them.
Run into a smaller box
Iowa's offense is going to look different tomorrow. How different? We'll see. I think it's pretty safe to say though, that it'll revolve around handing the ball off the Mark Weisman behind some zone blocking. The NIU defensive line lost 3 starters from last year and is undersized on the outside. The DEs weigh in at just 222 and 236 lbs. Whichever one of those dudes who lines up across from Brandon Scherff could have a really long day.
THe linebackers are more experienced with 2 returning starters, but will still need help from the safeties to stop the run. Last year, the team's leading tackler was free safety Jimmie Ward. So expect him to make his way down into the box to help support the run.
While Iowa's offensive line should be able to have some success against the Huskie's front 7, in order to have a really effective running game they'll need to keep NIU from stacking the box. There are a few ways I expect Iowa to do this.
Taking deep shots, I know...a new concept, should help keep Ward honest. I'd like to see Jake Rudock take a shot downfield early, just to make the defense think that's an option.
I also think there were be plays built around the zone read. Having the QB keep it from time to time should keep the backside DE at bay. I also think the WR screen action (whether or not they are ever going to throw that pass) will help keep the OLB covering the slot receiver honest.
Lastly, I expect some jet sweep type plays to Damond Powell or Jordan Canzeri to add a threat of an outside run. I rewatched the B1G title game from last year recently, and Wisconsin made a living from having Melvin Gordon run a sweep...either they'd hand it off to him and he was fast enough to make a play on the outside, or they'd fake the sweep and then just run it up the gut. And with enough defenders following the sweep, the middle was wide open.
Last year's game it was Damon Bullock that had a solid day and ultimately the game winning play running through a huge hole created by Scherff. Weisman hadn't yet been unleashed as a RB (he started that game as a fullback). If Iowa is able to make NIUs defense stay out of the middle of the field, Weisman will take advantage.
Establish an offensive identity
This has nothing to do with Northern Illinois.
It all started 3 years ago...trailing Pitt by 3 TDs in the second half, Iowa switched to its hurry up offense. James Vandenberg led the offense down the field 4 times to win the game. Ferentz became intrigued with the no-huddle and Iowa's offense has had an identity crisis since.
Two years ago, when Iowa toyed with the no-huddle, it did so almost exclusively using it's hurry up offense. The was little personnel or formation variation, and only a handful of different plays. They paired that with KOK's traditional pro-style offense. It was not very effective.
Then last year, Iowa paired Ferentz's zone blocking running game with Greg Davis's horizontal passing game, and mixed in a little no-huddle for good measure. The results were so very, very bad.
So this year, Iowa needs to figure out what the hell it wants to do on offense. Just pick something. Seriously.
Everything is pointing (except KF's little side remarks) to Iowa going to no-huddle the vast majority of the time. It will not just be the hurry up offense...it'll be Iowa's normal offense, just with the guys standing around looking at the sideline instead of huddling up to get the play. Tempo will be mixed in and out. We'll see more shotgun. More QB runs. More vertical passing. Packaged plays. An offense that makes sense. At least, that's what I'm hoping for.
The point is, even if things aren't going great, Ferentz needs to let this thing play out. If they're going to use the no-huddle, use it and don't just scrap it because you go 3-and-out in 37 seconds a couple of times.
Take advantage of depth
As I wrote in the Reasons for Optimism post yesterday, Iowa one of the silver linings to last year was that a lot of players got meaningful experience. There have been a bunch of different guys who have started and can contribute. The forecast for game time is hot...somewhere between the surface of the sun and Anna Kendrick. And depth is going to be a real factor.
NIU will try to push the tempo on offense and wear down the defense. We'll probably see at least 8 guys play along the defensive line and frequent rotation. On the other side of the ball, the big men up front my need to rotate some as well. Even a long run by a running back will probably warrant a substitution. The good news, is that depth should favor the Hawkeyes.
To really take advantage of its depth, Iowa should use its new fandangled no-huddle offense and try to push the tempo. Especially after first downs and long runs...keep those tired defenders on the field. Also pounding the ball with Weisman (and maybe even LeShun Daniels) should help wear down the defense. The last year's game, Iowa was able to wear down NIU and had was finally able to break them in the 4th quarter. If the game is close, Iowa may need similar 4th quarter heroics to take the lead or just keep the ball out of Jordan Lynch's hands.
The obvious one
So you can't really do a preview about Northern Illinois without talking about Jordan Lynch. He finished 7th in the Heisman voting last year and owns 4 NCAA records (I think all around QBs running the ball). He is a playmaker for sure.
His big eyesore, though, is his performance against the two BCS conference teams he played. He completed less than 40% of his passes against Iowa and Florida State (in the Orange Bowl) and lost both of those games. Iowa manage to hold him to just 54 passing yards. They also managed to, for the most part, keep him at bay running the ball. If you take away the 73 yard run, Lynch has only 46 yards on his 17 other carries.
If Iowa can repeat a defensive performance like that, then they should be in really good shape to win this game. Even allowing more passing yards while still limiting the big plays should suffice. Lynch has lost a couple of his top receivers last year and his starting running back is not expected to play. I'd expect Iowa to try to force the handoff on the zone read and to sit back a little and play contain on passing downs. The goal is to force NIU's non-Lynch players to make plays.
Iowa had one of its worst teams in the Ferentz era last year, while Northern Illinois had maybe its best ever. The game was away from Kinnick Stadium. The offense system was brand new and clearly unfamiliar. Mark Weisman was still a fullback. And Iowa still managed to win.
This year, NIU is breaking in a new head coach. The game is at home. The offense can't possibly be worse (right?!). Depth will be a bigger factor. And on and on.
Final Score: Iowa 27 - Northern Illinois 16