What is Dispatches from Blogfrica? Pretty simple: I ask questions of an blogger for an opposing team; he answers. A truly revolutionary idea, no? This week: Jesse Gavin, who's covered UNI sports for the last four years. You can find Jesse at @JesseGavin1.
1) This is the second time in three years that UNI is playing two FBS opponents (Wisconsin and Iowa State in 2012, Iowa and Hawaii in 2014). Is this going to become the new reality for UNI in terms of scheduling?
That's certainly the way it looks. UNI is in a really odd position when it comes to balancing competitive and financial interests right now. Even with their results against FBS opponents in the last couple years (win over Iowa State, close losses to Wisconsin and Iowa), those games don't appear to have made much of an impression with the FCS playoff selection committee, as UNI has been left out of the postseason each of those seasons. So when you look at what's best from a competitive standpoint, it might make more sense for UNI to be scheduling home-and-home series with other top-tier FCS teams.
But when you look at it from a financial point of view, it makes sense. UNI went through a series of pretty severe budget cuts in early 2012, which resulted in the loss of several academic programs, the closing of the Price Lab School, and $500,000 coming out of the general fund for athletics. I'm not sure what the numbers are this year, but UNI got about $1.2 million from their games against Iowa and Wisconsin back in 2012. UNI averaged 12,500 for their six home games last year. Tickets range from $13-$23, so even if you figure $18 per seat, that's a total of $1.35 million from UNI's home games. So getting a million-plus to play two FBS teams in the same season is a big boost to the UNI Athletic Department. Coach Mark Farley in 2012 basically came out and said that the football team was "taking one for the team," since those games against Wisconsin and Iowa really put the Panthers behind the eight ball with some fairly significant injuries before their conference season got started.
My understanding is that UNI's current plan is to play two FBS opponents every other season, with one game against an FBS team (typically Iowa or Iowa State) in those "off" years.
2) UNI returns a ton of experience on offense, with returnees at QB (Sawyer Kollmorgen -- 1824 yards, 14 TD/5 INT), RB (David Johnson -- 1700 total yards, 14 TD, including nearly 200 rushing yards against Iowa State), WR (Chad Owens and Kevin Vereen -- 112 receptions, 1345 receiving yards, 9 TD), and OL (four returning starters, 41 total career starts) -- how are they likely to try and attack Iowa's defense?
Farley said in his weekly news conference this week that he expects Iowa to load the box to try to stop Johnson, so I wouldn't be surprised to see the Panthers try to stretch Iowa's defense out. Another receiver to keep an eye on is Brett LeMaster, who is back after sitting out all last season with a knee injury. He would have been UNI's top returning receiver in 2013, and he had five catches for 99 yards in the Wisconsin/Iowa games in 2012. So UNI can really go three-wide at all times. Kollmorgen has some pretty good feet, so UNI may utilize play action and rollouts to keep him away from Iowa defensive line, which looks to be the strength of the Hawkeye defense. I would imagine that UNI will be striving for balance on offense to keep the Hawkeyes from stacking the box too much, but they are certainly going to put the ball in Johnson's hands as often as possible.
The big wild card will be how much UNI decides to use quarterback Brion Carnes. The Nebraska transfer led UNI to three wins at the end of last season after Kollmorgen went down with an injury. Prior to that, Carnes saw most of his action in a "wildcat" formation with Johnson lining up at quarterback. Carnes is a much more mobile QB, but his arm is just as strong as Kollmorgen's. Farley has said that Carnes will be on the field in some capacity, but it's not very clear just how much or in what role we'll see him.
3) UNI also returns a lot of talent on defense, led by DT Xavier Williams (74 tackles, 5.5 sacks) and LBs Max Busher and Jake Farley (131 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 fumble recovery, 1 TD) -- where do they have question marks? Where should Iowa look to attack on Saturday?
Defensive end is, without a doubt, the biggest question mark on this UNI defense. As good as the Panthers are in the interior of their line, with Xavier Williams and Mac O'Brien, the two starters at the end spots will both be new to the starting lineup. Ronelle McNeil and Isaac Ales are listed as the starters on the two-deep. Both guys saw action in 11 games last year as back-ups, combining for 36 tackles and five sacks.
Outside linebacker might be an interesting spot as well. Jake Farley is listed as the starter at the weakside spot, but he has been somewhat limited this fall after breaking his leg against North Dakota State last fall. It will be interesting to see how much time he's able to spend on the field on Saturday. His back up is his younger brother, Jared, a true freshman.The other OLB spot will be manned by Alex Paup, the son of former Packer/Bill Bryce Paup, who is now on the UNI staff. The younger Paup came to UNI with his dad, transferring from Division III Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
So where should Iowa attack? The edges, plain and simple. When you look at Iowa's backs, this could be a bigger game for Canzeri and Bullock than it is for Weisman. Unless that slow-developing Weisman stretch play is still in the playbook, of course.
4) Aside from the big names like Johnson, Kollmorgen, Williams, or Farley, who are 1-2 other players Iowa fans should be keeping an eye on Saturday?
The aforementioned LeMaster will likely be a big target in the passing game. Saturday may also see Barkley Hill take his first in-game snap inside Kinnick Stadium, something that didn't happen in Hill's two years as a Hawkeye. He will be David Johnson's back-up. As good as Johnson is and as vital as he is to the UNI gameplan, the game against Iowa is not the be-all or end-all of his season. UNI needs him to be at full strength late in the season, so Hill may see plenty of action.
UNI is in a similar situation to Iowa in that they are going to be working in several new specialists. Kicker Michael Schmadeke is said to have a very big leg, but his accuracy has been a question mark in his first two years in the program.
5) What's a reasonable expectation for UNI this season? They scuffled to a 7-5 record last year, which seemed a bit disappointing given their talent level and their 4-0 start. They lost five straight after that 4-0 start, though, including a 1-point loss and 3 straight OT (or 2OT) losses, which suggests some pretty brutal luck. How good can they be in 2014?
People here in Cedar Falls are pretty excited for this UNI season. When you look at those losses a year ago, UNI was essentially four plays away from being 11-1. They had eventual FCS champion North Dakota State on the ropes late in their game at Fargo, but things fell apart after a series of plays that included an interception being wiped away by a penalty and Jake Farley's broken leg.
Another similarity to Iowa is that UNI will host what may end up being their two toughest conference opponents in North Dakota State and South Dakota State, both of whom are ranked in the FCS preseason Top Ten.
This is a UNI team that certainly has the capability to be a team that wins their conference and makes a deep run in the FCS postseason. They have arguably the best running back and defensive lineman in the FCS. They should be a very balanced offensive team, and have great depth in the secondary in addition to some strong returners through the interior of their defense. As long as they can solidify their defensive ends, outside backers, and specialists by the time they begin Missouri Valley Football Conference action, this should be a very good team.
6) OK, prediction time for this game -- who ya got?
Iowa's running game has probably been keeping the UNI coaching staff up at night this week, and for good reason. With a stable of three backs running behind a veteran offensive line that includes a player who may be the top pick in next spring's NFL Draft, the Iowa rushing attack should worry a lot of coaching staffs over this season. UNI will keep this game competitive, but I just don't think they will be able to find a way to slow down Iowa's ground game. That said, UNI has enough explosiveness on offense to make a couple of big plays and keep things close. I'll take Iowa by a score.
Thanks for being a good sport, Jesse, although I still hope your team loses by 50 on Saturday. Again, you can check out Jesse at @JesseGavin1 -- give him a follow. The Iowa-UNI game is in Iowa City on Saturday, August 30, and is scheduled to start at 11:00 am CT, with television coverage from BTN.