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Iowa Football Opponent Preview: Northern Iowa

Can the offense right the ship against the Panthers?

NCAA Football: Iowa State at Iowa Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

As the Iowa Hawkeyes prepare to take on the Northern Iowa Panthers (0-1) this Saturday, Hawkeye fans are hoping this iteration of the Iowa/UNI rivalry is a bit less exciting than the past two. David Johnson ran roughshod over Iowa’s young linebacker corps in 2014, and even the 2009 Orange Bowl champion Hawkeye team needed two blocked field goals to subdue the Panthers in their opening game. Iowa’s 2016 home loss to North Dakota State certainly serves as a reminder that a hungry, well-coached FCS team is capable of walking into hostile territory and pulling an upset.

The Panther’s opening loss to Montana was truly a tale of two halves. In a performance that would seem familiar to Iowa fans, the Panthers struggled mightily to move the ball in the first half and were held scoreless by the Montana defense. Unlike the Hawkeyes, however, the Panther defense also proved to be slow-starting, which led to the Panthers falling behind 26-0 at half. Panther fans are hoping the UNI team that took the field in the second half and played inspired football to cut the final score to 26-23 is more emblematic of the team they will see for the remainder of the season. The Hawkeyes, meanwhile, are hoping to put their slow-starting ways behind them and have ample reason to believe that their deep and physically gifted defense can match up against the Panthers as well in the fourth quarter as it can in the first.

Here are a few important questions to consider as Iowa’s week three matchup approaches:

1. Can Iowa’s offense finally get on track?

Iowa’s offense has been extremely disappointing through two games. The Hawkeyes are averaging only three points in the first half, mustered a meager 2.9 yards-per-carry average against Iowa State, and have converted only 42% of 3rd down opportunities this season. Not only has Nate Stanley failed to improve his completion percentage, but he has looked erratic in the intermediate passing game and has struggled to establish consistent timing with his wide receivers. Similarly, with the exception of two large gains against Iowa State, Iowa’s wideouts have been largely absent so far this season, with last year’s leading receiver Nick Easley recording only one catch so far.

None of these trends suggest that Iowa’s offense is prepared to challenge Wisconsin in week four, but the Panthers provide an opportunity for the Hawkeyes to finally establish the offensive rhythm that has largely eluded them thus far. Even if Ihmir Smith-Marsette is unable to suit up against UNI, the Hawkeyes should look to reignite their moribund passing game against an outmatched Panther defense. Iowa’s receiving corps certainly isn’t as talented or deep as many other Big Ten teams, but for all their faults, the Hawkeye receivers will have a decided physical advantage against UNI’s defensive backs. The Panthers will certainly not have anyone who can cover the walking mismatch that is Noah Fant. Stanley has failed to meet fan and media expectation through two games, but this is a Panther defense that allowed someone named Dalton Sneed to pick them apart for much of the game during week one.

Iowa has the athletes up front to run the ball at will against the Panthers, and it is certainly in the Hawkeyes’ best interest to establish their running game more effectively this week than they did against the Cyclones. But Iowa HAS to be able to pass the ball effectively to keep the Wisconsin defense honest and prevent them from selling out against the run in week four. It would be very beneficial for Iowa to prioritize establishing stable connections between Stanley and his pass-catching corps against UNI, even if it means a more pass-heavy offensive game plan than Hawkeye fans are used to seeing in games such as this one.

2. Does UNI have an answer at quarterback? Will it matter?

The performance of the Panther passing game during week one left much to be desired. UNI quarterbacks completed only 16 of 42 passes over the course of the game, and frequent drops by the Panther wide receivers did little to make their job easier. UNI’s presumed starter Eli Dunne was benched for Colton Howell midway through the third quarter which helped spark the Panther offense, but Dunne is generally viewed as the player with more upside as a passer. Both quarterbacks may see the field on Saturday.

Meanwhile the Hawkeye pass defense has looked downright scary through two games. Iowa’s young corners acquitted themselves extremely well against Iowa State, holding dangerous wideout Hakeem Butler to three catches for 35 yards. Linebacker Djimon Colbert, a converted defensive back, excelled in pass coverage against Iowa State, a positive sign that the Hawkeyes can remain in their base defense even against teams that are heavily committed to the pass. The Hawkeye pass rush, which has already recorded nine sacks so far this season, shows signs of living up to the substantial preseason hype. UNI will likely have to pass often if they are going to stay in the game against Iowa into the second half, and Iowa’s ability to generate a consistent pass rush with their front four should allow the Hawkeyes to exploit UNI’s inconsistent quarterback play.

3. Will Iowa come to play?

The fact that Iowa’s game against UNI comes one week before its annual matchup with Wisconsin is not lost on fans; that the first section of this article is all about the need for Iowa to prepare for Wisconsin is proof positive of this fact. Arguably the biggest threat to the Hawkeyes this weekend is that the Iowa players are too aware of this fact as well. The UNI game is sandwiched between two intense and emotional rivalry games, and it would be easy for Iowa players to find themselves looking ahead to next week’s high-profile matchup.

Rest assured, UNI will be ready for this game. The Panther roster is littered with Iowa natives who dreamed of a chance to play for the Hawkeyes and will cherish the opportunity to prove the Iowa coaching staff wrong for ignoring them during the recruiting process. The fact that UNI had two weeks to prepare for Iowa further guarantees that the Panthers will come into Kinnick prepared and highly motivated to pull the upset over Iowa that has long eluded their program. Iowa is bigger, faster, stronger, and deeper at every position than UNI. A loss to the Panthers this week would fall squarely on the coaches and players for failing to take Mark Farley’s squad seriously enough.

The last time UNI defeated Iowa was 1898, and it led to a revolt by upperclassmen Iowa players. Let’s hope the Hawks don’t have to find out what would happen if they lose to the Panthers in 2018.