Tomorrow is finally the day.
Back in Black will blare from the speakers to a partially constructed North Endzone and we’ll see our first swarm of 2018 as the Iowa Hawkeyes take the field for Kirk Ferentz’s 20th season at the helm of the program.
Awaiting them will be the Northern Illinois Huskies, who defeated the Hawkeyes in their last matchup in Kinnick in 2013 in a game I have completely blocked from memory. Things won’t be any easier this year. A depleted offensive line, due primarily to suspension, will be going against a Northern Illinois defensive line that returns all of its starters and includes one of the country’s premier pass rushers.
Expectations are high for the Huskies, too. They’ll come into tomorrow’s matchup predicted by the MAC coaches to win their division, after finishing second in last year with a 6-2 conference record and an 8-5 overall record:
#MACtion coaches' preseason poll: Ohio and Northern Illinois picked to win the divisions. NIU edged defending champion Toledo by a point in the West. NIU plays a brutal non-con schedule (Utah, Florida State, Iowa, BYU), while Toledo hosts Miami and visits Fresno State.— Adam Rittenberg (@ESPNRittenberg) August 27, 2018
A Battle In The Trenches
Northern Illinois is looking to take full advantage of the fact that Iowa will have three offensive lineman making their first starts come tomorrow afternoon. Sutton Smith will be formidable against any opposing line he faces all year long: last season, he had 30 tackles for loss and 14 sacks, good enough to lead the country. He’s joined on the frontline by Ben LeRoy and Josh Corcoran, who finished last year with 7.5 and 8.5 tackles-for-loss, respectively, as well as Weston Kramer, a sophomore tackle who made a big impact in his debut season.
The Huskies also tied with OSU and Michigan last season to lead the country in tackles-for-loss, with 114. This experience compared to Iowa’s inexperience at offensive line is what makes me the most nervous. Yes, Iowa has had a month of practice for Mark Kallenberger, Dalton Ferguson, Ross Reynolds, Keegan Render and Cole Banwart to gel, but between them, none of them have started or logged significant minutes. I’ll be worried about this matchup until I have reason to think otherwise on Saturday afternoon.
Under center for the Huskies is sophomore quarterback Marcus Childers. He’s the reigning Freshman of the Year from the MAC, and, like many NIU quarterbacks before him, can make plays with his arm and his legs. He led the Huskies in rushing attempts last season. His final stat-line for 2017 - 152 completions on 265 attempts, a 57% competition rate, 16 touchdowns to 5 interceptions, and 5 touchdowns from 452 rushing yards that averaged to 3.4 yards per attempt.
Childers will also benefit from an offensive line that returns all of its starters. He’ll be throwing the ball to Spencer Tears and D.J. Brown, and Bill Connelly expects that Iowa State transfer Jauan Wesley could be a big contributor as well if he receives more targets.
However, it was announced earlier this week that Tears will be suspended for the game, along with tight end Mitchell Brinkman. Those are big losses in general, and especially big losses to announce on game week.
Iowa announced 4 suspensions for its opener vs. No. Illinois earlier this month. Now the Huskies have suspended two starters on offense -- TE Mitchell Brinkman & WR Spencer Tears. Tears had team-high 43 receptions for 528 yards & 4 TDs in 2017.— Brian Edwards Sports (@vegasbedwards) August 29, 2018
That will probably be a definite advantage for Iowa. Regardless, I don’t think I’ll be the only person calling this game a quarterback duel. Two second-year starters expected to have breakout years for teams with talent at tight end and or receiver? Yes please. The biggest difference will of course come from line play. NIU has experience that Iowa just doesn’t. But hopefully strength and conditioning will prevail if this game stays close for 3+ quarters (as you know it probably will).
Attack through the air!
Bill Connelly’s article also talks about how NIU was somewhat vulnerable against the pass last season, allowing nearly four 20-plus yard passes per game. If everyone’s prediction about Brian Ferentz opening up the offense and utilizing the proven talent he has in Nate Stanley, Noah Fant and Nick Easley comes true, this is certainly the time to show it (but maybe not everything, since it’s only Game 1).
But lurking for the ball will be returning safeties Mykelti Williams and Trayshon Foster, as well as corners Albert Smalls and Jalen Embry, all who proved admirable last season.
Another Early Test
This game isn’t going to be easy, but at the end of the day, and with these latest suspensions, I’m starting to feel a little better about Iowa’s chance of winning. Aggressive offense will be key here, I think, and I also think that Iowa’s physical strength will prevail in the end. It just might not be as big of a rout as some of us would like to see. 24-14, Iowa.
Go Hawks. I’m amped.