This week we were lucky enough to chat with RossWB from Black Heart Gold Pants, Iowa blog supreme, about Saturday's game. Seriously though those guys are great and go check out their blog right after you read this!
1. Is Iowa really nervous about this game or is it seem like just another season opener that they've won the last 12 straight years?
It's definitely not "just another season opener." I think most Iowa fans would say it's the most challenging season opener since... well, since we played NIU last year, I suppose. But this year people are definitely wary of NIU -- we haven't forgotten how close the Iowa-NIU game was last year, nor have we overlooked the fact that the Huskies won 12 games and made the Orange Bowl. NIU definitely looks like a cut above Iowa's usual season opener fare, so Iowa fans are taking this game very seriously. I think the players and coaches are doing the same, too -- I doubt they're going to overlook NIU after playing them last year.
2. What are some of Jake Rudock's strengths and abilities and how will he try and play in his first career start?
Rudock's never thrown a pass in college (or even taken a snap), so it's hard for me to say with any degree of certainty what his strengths are. But he's reported to be a very smart QB and a very accurate QB; he won the Iowa starting QB job this year because he apparently had the best grasp of the offense and how to run it in live action. He's not a freak athlete and he doesn't have a cannon arm, but he does have solid mobility and his arm seems to be good enough to make the throws he needs to make. I don't expect him to try to do too much in this game; the strength of the Iowa offensive line should be its offensive line and running game (led by burly fullback-turned-running back Mark Weisman) and I expect them to try to leverage that as much as possible, especially since NIU's defensive line is somewhat inexperienced. The key for Rudock will be his ability to keep the NIU defense honest and his ability to stretch the field; Iowa's QB last year, James Vandenberg, couldn't do that with any degree of effectiveness and the offense was a stagnant mess for most of the season.
3. NIU's defense is pretty green on defense outside of the secondary. What Hawkeyes on the offensive side of the ball will have to perform highly to get the win?
To follow up on what I said above -- the offensive line and the running game is the best part of Iowa's offense, so that's the area I expect Iowa to try and exploit against the Huskies. The OL is led by Brandon Scherff, a JR LT who has flashed signs of being Iowa's next standout LT -- the job this year will be performing at a high level consistently. Iowa's main RB is Mark Weisman, an Air Force transfer who started as a FB (that's where he played against NIU last year, in fact) and transitioned into RB a few games into the season (when, surprise surprise, several Iowa RBs got hurt). He's a big, powerful runner and he tends to just plow through opposing defenders, but he also has a bit more speed than you might expect from a back of his size. Iowa also has a slew of other RBs to call on, including junior Damon Bullock, sophomore Jordan Canzeri, and freshman LeShun Daniels. Bullock and Canzeri are shorter, shiftier speed backs, while Daniels is another big bruiser. The other strength of Iowa's offense is its tight ends, so I expect them to be utilized quite a bit on Saturday. The top tight end is CJ Fiedorowicz, a big target with soft hands and good speed, but Iowa also has Ray Hamilton and Jake Duzey who will see action. I expect Iowa to utilize multiple TE sets a fair amount on Saturday.
4. NIU's OL against Iowa's defense looks like one of the better matchups in this game. What players on that side of the ball will make a big impact stopping Lynch and co?
The strength of Iowa's defense is at the linebacker position, where they have a trio of multi-year starters in James Morris, Christian Kirksey, and Anthony Hitchens. Those three will need to make some big plays to slow down the NIU offense (and Lynch in particular). I'm very curious to see if Iowa has one of them spy Lynch in this game. Iowa typically employs a scheme heavy on discipline and staying in a particular zone, but with Lynch they may need to tweak that approach. The 5000 yards of offense he racked up last year are a testament to his playmaking ability. Iowa did a good job of bottling up Lynch in last year's game (minus a 73-yard TD run), but he certainly improved a lot after that game, so I'm not exactly expecting a repeat of last year's performance against him. The other key for Iowa's defense will be the defensive line -- they need to be able to generate some pressure on Lynch and they also need to keep him from breaking contain and scampering downfield for a big gain. The defensive line has struggled a lot in recent years, so this game should be a great test to see how much (if at all) they've improved this year.
Heat, heat, and more heat. It's supposed to be a scorcher on Saturday, with temperatures near 100 -- and it will be even hotter than that on the field. I hope both teams are able to stay cool and adequately hydrated, but I suspect that cramping and exhaustion is going to be a key subplot in this game. I think Iowa will try to rotate a lot of players in order to stay fresh. Last year's game ended up being a big of a defensive slog, but I think this year's game will be a bit more high-scoring -- or at least I hope so, for Iowa's sake. I don't think the Iowa defense will be able to keep Lynch in check as well as they did last year, so the offense is going to need to score more points to keep up and have a chance to win. One way to do that would be to not let so many drives end in field goals; Iowa attempted 5 field goals against NIU last year (and converted 4 of them) -- they're going to need to convert some of those into touchdowns this year. I think they'll be able to do that, though. I think the running game is stronger this year than it was last year and I think Jake Rudock seems more comfortable running this offense than James Vandenberg did last year. That said, I expect this to be a close game that will come down to a key play -- a turnover, a special teams miscue, a big play on offense -- in the fourth quarter. Given that the game's in Kinnick Stadium, I'm going to side with Iowa getting that break.
IOWA 31, NORTHERN ILLINOIS 27