So, there's no proper preview for Northern Illinois this week. I wanted to do one but ran out of time and then ran in to internet issues (thanks Mediacom). Anyway, here are a few keys of the game for tomorrow.
1. Make Jordan Lynch throw the ball
We've all heard about Chandler Harnish by now. Kirk Ferentz has mentioned him like 20 times in the past week. He was an amazing accomplished QB for the Huskies and set both passing and rushing records for NIU. If he was still around, somebody I would be seriously worried about Iowa's inexperienced defense trying to corral. But he's gone, drafted as the last pick. So we turn our focus to Jordan Lynch.
Even with Harnish at the helm last year, Lynch got his share of snaps. He finished 4th on the team in rushing yards with 246 and attempted 20 passes. Important note--There is a new OC in town, but the word is the offense is going to remain much the same so I'm basing a lot of this on last year. Based on the one game I watch of NIU's (the GODADDY.com Bowl), Lynch was primarily used as a run-first quarterback in special packages. A lot of the plays he ran were designed QB runs or option plays. The frequently used him with multiple backs instead of their usual 3-4 wide.
Harnish was NIU's leading rusher last season and I expect it to be Lynch this year. So Iowa is going to have to take this dimension of his game away. Or at least minimize it. We know Iowa has struggled against rushing quarterbacks in the past, and with the question marks along the defensive line, it at least looks like the Hawkeyes could struggle again this year.
The one speck of hope for shutting down Lynch's ground game is that NIU will be breaking in 5 new offensive linemen. The 3 interior starters are all red-shirt freshmen. So if there is one this year that the defensive line can maybe gain some confidence, this is it.
This is all not to say that NIU's passing game is going to be horrendous. While the rest of the offense is extremely inexperience, the Huskie receiving corps looks to be one of the best units on the team. Two of the top 3 receivers from last year return: Martel Moore and Perez Ashford. There is some depth there too. Plus they list 4 starting WRs on their depth chart (and 14 total players).
2. Use the tight ends
The biggest mismatch I can see just looking at the two teams' depth charts is Iowa's tight ends vs. NIU's linebackers. The starting trio of Huskie linebackers are all listed under 6'0 and all weigh in the 220 area. Compare that to 6'7", 265 C.J. Fiedorowicz, or 6'5" 248 Ray Hamilton, and on down the line of TEs. That should be an advantage in the run game and even more so passing. It would seem to me you could just kind of lob it up to CJF and let him just go up there and get it...over and over and over.
It'll be interesting to watch the mix of personnel groupings; 2 TE vs 3-4 wide vs 2 backs... Ferentz said on Tuesday that 4 TEs would play and 6 WRs. So that's a lot of guys that are going to be splitting targets (not to mention the running backs and full backs). I have a feeling that the TEs will finish the game with more receptions than any other group.
3. Third downs
If I learned anything from Googling Greg Davis, it's that he likes to throw the ball horizontally. A couple of quick 2-yard passes toward the boundary, and Iowa is sitting 3rd and 6. With questions at running back as well, Iowa could be looking at a lot of 3rd downs in that manageable, but not easy to pick up range. Here's where I'd probably just have CJF post up 1 yard past the first down marker.
NIU will make it more difficult than that though. In their bowl game, they repeatedly played pretty conservatively on 1st and 2nd down, but were aggressive on 3rddown, especially on 3rd-and-long. They used that everyone stand around the line of scrimmage so you don't know who is going to rush and who is going to drop into coverage type of D on 3rd down...and we've seen James Vandenberg struggle picking up blitzes before.
Kirk Ferentz loves to play the field position game, but with a true freshman punter, he may not have that luxury. Iowa has had some pretty good punting talent the past 4 or 5 years, but there could be some bumps this year.
Also, Greg Davis has talked about the offense going at a little faster tempo and using some no-huddle. This can really come back to bite a team if they have a couple of 3-and-outs and only burn about 20 seconds off the clock.
On the other side of the ball, Iowa's defense needs to keep the third down conversions to a minimum. The key here is to contain Jordan Lynch. How many times in the past couple of years have we seen Iowa get an opponent in 3rd and long only to have the QB scramble and pick up the first down? Too many. I think Iowa's secondary is good enough and will play tight enough to limit the 3rd and longs converted through the air.
4. Managing the slop
The first game of the year also has its share of sloppiness as both teams try to shake off the cobwebs. Iowa needs to keep the dumb penalties to a minimum. It seemed like that was a big problem from them in the second open practice as there were 6 false start penalties in the short scrimmage. Soldier Field probably won't be full or nearly as loud as the pumped in crowd noise, but still.
The other area that Iowa can't afford big mistakes is in the secondary. If Phil Parker is going to put the corners out there on an island and be more aggressive on defense, the margin for error shrinks. Iowa struggled early last season giving up the big pass play and it cost them at least one game. I'm not sure how comfortable I am with either Nico Law or Tom Donatell back there at SS in week 1.
Also...this game maybe sloppy because of the weather. Thanks to the remnants of Hurricane Isaac (it looks like it is supposed to hit Chicago right around 2:30--kick off time), this game may look similar to last year's season opener in terms of rain. With the current running back situation, I'm not so sure bad weather favors the Hawkeyes.
If you look at NIU's Soldier Field game last year against Wisconsin (who, granted, was almost undoubtedly a better team last year than Iowa is right now), the Huskies only put up 7 points...and that was with Harnish. So I think Iowa will be able to hold them under 20. And while NIU is decidedly more experience on defense, they were still awful last year on that side of the ball and didn't really do anything to upgrade. If Iowa can't score 20 on NIU, it could be a long year.
I think both team will struggle offensively early in the game. Both are breaking in new offensive coordinator and have some inexperienced units. Ultimately though, Iowa's size and strength will wear on the Huskies and the Hawkeyes will pull away in the second half as NIU's offense continues to struggle.Final Score: Iowa 31 - Northern Illinois 17