Here's what to expect from Northern Illinois, a team that played Iowa to an even closer game than the 24-14 score suggests: it took a fourth-down TD pass late in the game to push the margin back to 10 points. Sure, the only reason Iowa wasn't kicking was the fact that Kyle Schlicher had already missed two field goals, but still. It was a three-point game with under five minutes to go, and NIU was rolling.
It's tempting to see that the teams were ten points apart last year, look at the fact that the game's in Chicago, and start flipping out that NIU could win. That's probably not the case. A look at the individual matchups reveals that Iowa ought to win comfortably.
WHEN IOWA IS ON OFFENSE
Iowa OL vs. NIU DL
This would be the largest disparity in talent between the two teams if everyone was healthy. Unfortunately, LT Dace Richardson remains out while his knee recovers at a slower pace than expected. He might be back for Syracuse, but it's doubtful. The rest of the Iowa line is green, but good. Andy Kuempel and the dulcet-toned Julian Vandervelde have beaten out VHT's(!) Dan Doering and Tyler Blum at the guard spots, and the duo of RT Seth Olsen and C Rafael Eubanks are the most experienced linemen on the team. Best of all, with the Richardson injury aside, the other four linemen have spent weeks together as a unit, which is vital to an offensive line's effectiveness.
NIU fields two returning defensive ends, and one--junior Larry English--is probably the best in the MAC. He recorded 12 sacks as a sophomore last year, and there's no reason to believe he won't improve on that number. Still, he's a rush end, and the Huskies must replace their top three interior linemen on defense. Iowa figures to be able to create gaps between the tackles, and this is a clear advantage for the Hawkeyes.
Iowa WR/TE vs. NIU DB
We all know what happened in the Douglas/Bowman Affair. It's wildly unlikely that they'll be back this year. That's in the past now.
WR Andy Brodell, as you might recall, blew Texas the fuck up. The other likely starter, fellow IGWWR Trey Stross, is the best deep threat on the team. So it's not as if Iowa is doomed at the wideout position. Beyond those two are James "Intimidator" Cleveland and Derrell Johnson-Koulianos-Papadopalis, both of whom are considered assets.
At tight end, Tony Moeaki is peerless in all facets of the game. His backup, second-stringer Brandon Myers... is not. And that's about all that needs to be said about the position.
NIU returns two capable (if not particularly talented) cornerbacks in Bradley Pruitt and Melvin Rice. The two started the majority of last season's games, though a combination of two experienced cornerbacks is pretty unremarkable:
"I will cover the flanker on my side of the field."
"I will cover the split end 30 yards away, which is on my side of the field."
"This is terribly complex. Our learning curve is clearly at least a dozen games long."
"I know. Better luck next year, compadre."
For what it's worth, the Man of Steele does not rank either as at least third-team all-MAC, so the starting experience should not trouble Iowa fans.
The Huskies' safeties are similarly unremarkable, neither being especially touted or experienced. While there are very few "weak links" on a Joe Novak team, the Iowa passing game has no reason to fear safeties like Mark Reiter or Spencer Williamson.
Again, the advantage belongs to Iowa.
Iowa RB vs. NIU LB
At their best, AY and Sims were a redux of the dynamite combo from 10 years ago of Sedrick Shaw and Tavian Banks. At their 2006 usual, they were a system of trading one deep flaw for another.
Young was particularly disappointing; the 2005 season, his first back from the torn ACL, was full of brilliance within the first 15 yards from the line of scrimmage. His breakaway speed, meanwhile, was understandably missing. That was filled by Sims, who averaged a flatly absurd 9.9 yards per carry (hellooo, outliers!).
Then last year happened and all hell broke loose. Young never seemed to be 100%, frequently brought down by defensive linemen and almost never testing his speed against the secondary. His yards per carry fell an almost unfathomable full yard; if he's healthy again, then we should expect him to revert to his 1,334 (5.4 ypc) form.
Damian Sims also returns. Sims has come a long way from his true freshman year, trying to run the ball at 160 pounds soaking wet, and he seems ready to take on an expanded role. He spent too many plays in 2006 chasing after his own fumbles, however. That's largely a matter for reps and practice, so he should be able to fix that problem. Sims is more of a Fred Russell than your typical third-down, smallish backs, but the Ferentz/O'Keefe offense has never depended on a third-down back; now's not the time to start lamenting the absence.
While Sims will never be confused for the transcendent talent that was
As far as the Huskies' defense, the linebackers are for the most part nothing special. They're stout up the middle with Tim McCarthy, but by and large they're smallish (averaging about 220 pounds across the board) and not particularly exciting. They're moderately productive, having given up fewer than four yards per carry during each of the last five seasons, but that's easy when the only good tailback in the conference is standing on your sidelines. Once again, Iowa looks to be at an advantage.
Iowa QB vs. NIU D
Anyone who worries about Jake Christensen's poise here, quite frankly, has not been paying attention to the young man during his career at Iowa. He has displayed uncommon amounts of maturity and leadership, and there's no question that this is his offense and his team. The NIU defense is, while well-coached, just not a fearsome unit. Iowa is across-the-board better.
WHEN IOWA IS ON DEFENSE
NIU OL vs. Iowa DL
The Huskies' offensive line has typically been a strength, allowing tailbacks like Garrett Wolfe and Michael Turner to rush for more than 10,000 yards over the last seven seasons. That's very many yards, especially considering Turner only rushed for about 400 yards in 2001. Leading the way is LT Jon Brost, a 6'6" beastman who has started 23 games thus far and will likely hear his name called on draft day two years from now. Past that, sophomore Jason Onyebuagu has earned mountains of praise from the NIU coaching staff, and he will likely garner all-conference accolades before his college career is over.
As far as the Iowa defensive line, well, which line do you think will show up? Will it be the one that terrorized offenses at the end of 2005? Will it be the 2006 line that simply leaned on the offensive line instead of blowing past them? If they're healthy, every single starter on Iowa's side is great. Bryan Mattison is generally the most consistent of the bunch, playing a very Kampman-esque role in both pass rush and run support. Mitch King and Kenny Iwebema battled nagging injuries all year, occasionally missing games. So while it may be unfair to tag them as "mercurial," they've both had some mental lapses (King's personal fouls and Iwebema's unspecified misbehavior) that have negatively impacted the line's performance as well. They've both got to put together 12 good games this season.
NIU head coach Joe Novak is particularly worried about the matchup:
"Iowa is always a big, strong, physical football team,” Novak said. “That’s Kirk Ferentz. That’s Iowa kids. The front four, it’s the most physical one we play all year. I don’t want to play one that’s better than them.More on Dan later.
“If we can’t block their front four, Dan or our running backs aren’t going to have a chance.”
Gotta say Iowa's at a distinct advantage on this side of the trenches as well.
NIU WR/TE vs. Iowa DB
This is probably the Huskies' strongest unit, and they're facing Iowa's weakest. WR Britt Davis is big, strong, (6'2" 205), and fast--he's their #1 receiver. On the other side of the field will be Marcus Perez, an able kick returner with speed to burn. Combine that with TE Brandon Davis (who, if google serves me right, is Paris Hilton's friend), and QB Dan Nicholson should have plenty of targets to throw to.
As for the Iowa defensive backs, yikes. We all know how Adam Shada performed last year, and let's just hope he's got his confidence back. Bradley Fletcher might have been able to start on the other side, but he decided after too many cocktails that he absolutely had to get behind the wheel. He will not be playing football tomorrow. So it'll be Charles Godfrey, who has been decent.
At the safety spots, Kirk Ferentz was overjoyed to get Devan Moylan back. And to be sure, when a coach is excited about getting a walk-on without extensive playing time back to compete for a starting role, that position is in trouble. Essentially, there's little to no proven quality here, and it's a major disadvantage for Iowa.
NIU RB vs. Iowa LB
Garrett Wolfe is gone, and that is wonderful news. Iowa shut him down last year, but he was likely a bit drained, having touched the ball over 200 times in the seven prior games. In his stead is a committee of running backs, led by smallish Montell Clanton, who missed all but the first three games of the season last year.
As for the Iowa linebacking corps, it is once again stout. Mike Klinkenborg and Mike Humpal are both monsters against the run, and incoming starter A.J. Edds could be the best of them all. We know who they are and how good they'll be. Iowa's at a clear advantage here--most likely their best of any matchup.
NIU QB vs. Iowa D
NIU coach Joe Novak had this to say about new starter Dan Nicholson:
Like Iowa, Northern Illinois also is breaking in a new quarterback in Dan Nicholson, a player Novak says has “as much raw potential as any quarterback we’ve had here.”Or, to translate: Bazooka arm, Skittles brain. Nicholson completed a hair over half his passes last season (60-115), and threw just five TD's to go with six picks. Now, Novak is stressing the importance of mental improvement, not lauding Nicholson for it. That is a major advantage for Iowa.
“Dan’s got to learn how to manage the game a little bit better than he has in the past,” Novak said. “Drop back and rip, he can do that as well as any of them.”
Consider, especially, that all-Universe tailback Garrett Wolfe got just 66 yards on 22 carries against the Hawkeyes last year. This year's running game should be equally as anemic, so NIU will have to depend on the golden arm of a space case, and I am A-OK with that.
NIU kicker Chris Nendick has a golden foot and a funny name. He hit 20 of 27 kicks last year, and he'll probably compete for the Lou Groza award this year if he can add a few more yards to his makes (long of 44 last year). The Huskies' punter, one Andy Dittbenner, is not as good, netting only about 32 yards per punt. KR/PR Greg Turner is decent.
As for Iowa, the duties seem to shake out with Austin Signor handling kicking, and Ryan Donahue punting. Damian Sims and DJK are returning kicks, and Andy Brodell will likely return punts.
No clear edge here.
Joe Novak is a wily old fart. He's been coaching since the early '70's, and he knows the game about as well as anyone. NIU has long been well-coached, and Iowa should not expect a disorganized opponent on Saturday.
Whether or not you think Iowa can match them in preparedness depends on whether you think the 2006 mid-collapse Kirk Ferentz will show up, or the 2002-2004 "why isn't this guy running the NFL yet?" Ferentz returns. Based on what we saw during the Alamo Bowl, it's probably safe to say the collapse is over.
Based on all this, it's really hard to imagine how Northern Illinois can win. Iowa ought to be able to move the sticks on a much more consistent basis, and a final score around 27-10 seems right.