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Iowa Football Schedule Look-Ahead: Northern Illinois

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The Hawkeyes host NIU for the first time since the Huskies’ 2013 win

NCAA Football: Northern Illinois at San Diego State Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

The sports calendar has officially turned to dead. In our attempts to revive it, we’ll look ahead to each of the Iowa Hawkeyes’ opponents this fall to see what might be in store. First up: The Northern Illinois Huskies!

History

(via Winsipedia)

Iowa has taken 8 out of 9 matchups against the Huskies. The ninth game came in 2013, when Northern Illinois found vengeance against the Hawkeyes for ruining their perfect 2012 regular season. I’m glad there’s some distance between that game and now because it is hilarious to read back.

Anyways, Kirk Ferentz is 4-1 against NIU, with 2 wins coming in Chicago. Rod Carey is 1-0, with the comeback victory in 2013 at Historic Kinnick Stadium. They went on to win another 11 games that season behind Jordan Lynch’s Heisman campaign season (he finished 3rd) but it still doesn’t make the loss any less embarrassing.

Last Season

The Huskies went a modest 8-5 and finished tied for 2nd in their MAC division at 6-2. The highlight was their early season victory over the Nebraska Cornhuskers, 21-17. They closed out their campaign with a 36-14 loss to the Duke Blue Devils in the Quick Lane Bowl.

Offense

all stats via sports-ref.com unless otherwise noted

Marcus Childers returns as the starting quarterback and reigning MAC Freshman of the Year for Northern Illinois. He compiled some solid statistics as their leading passer and rusher (by attempts):

· 152/265 (57.4%), 1674 yards (6.3 YPA), 16 TDs, & 5 INTs

· 473 yards on 143 rushing attempts (3.3 avg), 5 TDs

In the highlights available, he lacks arm strength and succeeds by way of scheming to get his receivers wide open.

When asked to make more difficult throws, especially down the field, he struggles:

As mentioned above, he led the team in rush attempts and shows some decent shiftiness.

Iowa’s shown increasing competence against this style of offense. With his lackluster arm strength, they should be able to jump on errant throws, especially if they get a quality pass rush. The big question: will Iowa’s greenhorn linebackers execute well enough through the deception to lock down the middle of the field?

Marcus Jones is the presumptive starting running back after Jordan Huff’s graduation. Jones had a solid sophomore campaign which saw him tally 350 yards on 83 carries (4.2 avg) and 3 TDs as the primary backup. He also shows some ability in the pass game, as he led Huskie RBs with 12 receptions.

The leading receivers Iowa will see are Spencer Tears and D.J. Brown. They had 43 and 42 receptions, respectively, with Tears being the more downfield threat with 528 yards to Brown’s 365. NIU will incorporate Brown in the run game, as he added 22 rushes for 108 yards on the season. In 2017, Shane Winmann was heavily involved in the red zone pass game as a tight end with 7 TDs to lead the team. Though he graduates, it’s safe to assume they’ll look to incorporate another TE to fill his void. Both Daniel Crawford and Mitchell Brinkman received touches last year at the position.

Defense

In Bill Connelly’s mothership preview of the Huskies, he lauded this unit. It’s hard not to see why: Sutton Smith led the country in sacks and tackles for loss, with 14 and 30, respectively. He is undersized at 6’0” and 225 but he did not let that deter him. Iowa’s offensive performance might hinge on whether the line can keep Stanley standing upright.

Jawuan Johnson and Mykelti Williams are the leading two tacklers from this unit. Johnson also snagged 5 interceptions as a linebacker. Williams as some bona fides as a transfer from Notre Dame after a non-existent year there. They also return a pair of senior cornerbacks – Albert Smalls and Jalen Embry – in a potential strength-on-strength matchup between Iowa’s passing game and NIU’s secondary.

Connelly also notes the Huskies lose the coordinator who transformed their defense last year. Jeff Knowles takes over the role, in addition to maintaining his spot as LB coach. If they maintain their high risk-high reward style defense, it does leave them susceptible to big plays: they allowed nearly 4 20+ yard pass plays per game last year, per Connelly.

Conclusion

If history is any indicator, Northern Illinois will not be an easy out for the Hawkeyes. Ferentz’s largest margin of victory was 24 points and came in his very first year. Iowa’s only effort over 24 points was the 2013 loss. Expect some white-knuckling, especially if the offensive line is out of sync and Iowa’s back 7 are unable to jell. Or Iowa could overpower the Huskies up front behind an emergent performance from Toren Young, force some timely turnovers as NIU leans more heavily on shots downfield, and catch a break in special teams play for win a game akin to last year’s over Wyoming.

With Kirk Ferentz, nothing is guaranteed. September 1, 2018 will provide another reminder.