Breaking down No. 11 Iowa (2-0) vs. FCS No. 1 North Dakota State (2-0). Kickoff is 11 a.m. Saturday (ESPN2).
NDSU RUSH DEFENSE VS. IOWA RUSH OFFENSE
North Dakota State is built along the same lines as Iowa and Wisconsin. The Bison are built from the inside out, meaning their most developed and mature players are on the line of scrimmage.
The Bison run a base 4-3 defense size and strength up front. Junior DE Greg Menard (6-2, 239) led NDSU last season with 10 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss. The Bison led the Missouri Valley Conference with just 104.5 rushing yards per game allowed.
DT Nate Tanguay (6-4, 290) and nose guard Aaron Steidl (6-2, 288) provide the push inside to go along with active DE Brad Ambrosius (6-4, 246), who has 3.5 tackles for loss and 3.0 sacks this season.
After missing the second half the season-opener with a shoulder separation, senior middle linebacker Nick DeLuca earned MVC defensive player of the week in the Bison’s 50-44 overtime victory over No. 7 Eastern Washington last weekend. He had a game-high 15 tackles and scored on a 40-yard interception return.
Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said this week the NDSU front doesn’t “run around blocks.” That means the inside players will line up head up on O-linemen.
NDSU’s front won’t just stand there, either. Iowa’s O-line was undone by stunts by Stanford in the Rose Bowl. These created 3-on-3 matchups the Iowa’s O-line didn’t catch up to.
Iowa’s run game has been efficient (6.31 yards per carry leads the Big Ten) and explosive (10 12-plus yard rushes in the first two games). Running back Akrum Wadley is nursing a sore left knee, but did practice this week. Sophomore Lucas LeGrand will be in his second game as starter, filling in for injured James Daniels (knee).
NDSU could run games at LeGrand. There could be a tackle over him. That tackle could stunt outside and a DE could crash and, oh hey, where did the linebacker go?
NDSU head coach Chris Klieman came on board as defensive coordinator as the Bison’s five-year reign as FCS national champions began. NDSU will throw punches here, but Iowa literally spends millions building O-linemen and should have the upper hand based on sheer physicality.
NDSU PASS DEFENSE VS. IOWA PASS OFFENSE
The Bison see all kinds of crazy junk offenses in FCS. Montana coach Bob Stitt runs a crazy air raid pass offense that got NDSU in the 2015 opener, but then in the playoffs, the Bison had it figured out and advanced.
NDSU graduated both of its corners, so sophomores Jaylaan Wimbush (6-0, 188) and Jalen Allison (6-0, 183) are new. Sophomore strong safety Robbie Grimsley (6-0, 183) was Minnesota’s prep “Mr. Football” in 2014. Junior free safety Tre Dempsey (5-10, 179) came out of Lakeland, Fla., as a cornerback.
In NDSU’s opener against No. 7 Charleston Southern, Allison had an interception and Wimbush broke up a fourth-down pass that sealed the victory. In two games, the Bison have picked off four passes.
Ambrosius provides pressure. He has 3.0 sacks this season and 10 for his career. Menard has 1.5 sacks this season. The Bison will move D-linemen and linebackers around and try to find a weak spot in an O-line.
Iowa’s passing game last week was quarterback C.J. Beathard lining up under center with a formation called and that was about it. Beathard has been given a ton of responsibility in putting the Iowa offense in the right play against what he sees pre-snap. The result last week was a record night for senior wide receiver Matt VandeBerg, who caught seven passes for a career-high 129 yards.
Beathard’s pre-snap reads created mismatches for the Hawkeyes. NDSU will give VandeBerg a lot of attention, so where could the next favorable matchup happen for the Hawkeyes? Maybe tight end George Kittle. He’ll have speed and size to give NDSU safeties and linebackers something to deal with.
VandeBerg leads Iowa with 16 targets. Wide receivers Jerminic Smith and Riley McCarron have combined for 15. Kittle has five. Running back Derrick Mitchell Jr. caught three passes as third-down back last week. Mitchell might be touch-and-go after an injury early this week in practice.
NDSU RUSH OFFENSE VS. IOWA RUSH DEFENSE
Iowa’s defensive players were schooled by coaches this week with a few themes on North Dakota State. First, every Hawkeye knew how many consecutive FCS national championships the Bison have going (it’s five, incredibly) and every Hawkeye knew how many consecutive wins over FBS schools NDSU has (also five, Kansas, Minnesota, Colorado State, Kansas State and Iowa State). (Iowa is NDSU’s last FBS opponent until Oregon in 2020, so you know the Bison will be eager to keep this streak rolling.)
And secondly, when asked, every Iowa defender compared the Bison to Wisconsin. That makes total sense.
The Bison embrace a power running game. In Iowa’s opener Miami (Ohio) avoided Iowa defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson. You will see NDSU go right at the 6-4, 315-pound senior. The Bison hang their hat on inside zone and power plays.
Sophomore running back Lance Dunn leads NDSU with 178 yards and two TDs on 26 carries. He’s had one carry for loss this season. Dunn (5-9, 207) is from Waterloo (a second-team all-stater at West High School) and he’s ... um ... rather enthusiastic about facing the Hawkeyes.
“They looked at me but didn’t really recruit me,” Dunn told the Fargo (N.D.) Forum. “They overlooked me so I’m ready to show them what I’m about.”
What makes NDSU’s run game go is a talented group of offensive linemen that includes three seniors and three native North Dakotans. Iowa’s defense has allowed QBs to break free for decent gains in the first two games (it hasn’t killed the Hawkeyes, but QBs have kept drives alive with their feet). NDSU quarterback Easton Stick (6-2, 222) averages 5.0 yards on 21 carries so far this season.
Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz wasn’t pleased with the rush defense in the opener. The Hawkeyes tightened up there last week against Iowa State, allowing just 126 yards on 35 carries. The missed calls that Iowa’s front missed in the opener were filled in last week.
The Hawkeyes were particularly tough on runs up the middle, holding the Cyclones to 20 yards on nine carries between the center and right guard. Iowa State’s most effective rushing play was the quarterback scramble (six for 34 yards). That’s no way to make a living.
NDSU PASS OFFENSE VS. IOWA PASS DEFENSE
No wonder the Bison won its fifth consecutive FCS crown last season. With QB Carson Wentz, the No. 2 pick in the NFL draft who won his pro debut last weekend for the Philadelphia Eagles, it had to have been cotton candy and merry-go-rounds.
No, it didn’t quite go that way and the cotton candy line surely tipped you off.
Wentz was injured for most of the season, missing eight games, including every playoff game except for the FCS national final. Stick was the guy for those eight games, throwing for 1,144 yards (7.8 yards per attempt) with 13 TDs and just three interceptions. Stick also fan for 550 yards and five TDs.
Former Iowa wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley has started a T-shirt line with the “Two-Star, earn the fifth” being the flagship design. The two stars are for recruiting stars. Martin-Manley might want to throw Stick a link. Stick is a former two-star recruit from Omaha, Neb. Iowa gave him a look, and Stick had offers from Rutgers and Miami (Ohio).
Stick simply has picked up where he left off. He’s completed 34 of 53 passes for 451 yards, four TDs and just one interception. Sophomore wide receiver Darrius Shepherd (5-11, 182) has been his favorite target, catching eight passes for 127 yards and two TDs. Junior WR R.J. Urzendowski (6-0, 194) has four catches for 121 yards and a TD.
The Bison’s passing game is west coast with shotgun, pistol and diamond formations. Stick is a good enough runner to make the read option go, so Iowa might see some run-pass options.
Iowa cornerback Desmond King has been targeted just six times in Iowa’s first two games. Fellow cornerback Greg Mabin has seen 16 passes go his way. That’s probably going to be the way it goes this season. What does it do for Iowa’s defense? It takes King’s half or third, depending on the coverage, away as an option. It buys Iowa’s defense steps, especially in leveraging an offense.
Redshirt freshman defensive end Anthony Nelson has gotten to the QB more than any other Hawkeye, with his 3.5 sacks leading the Big Ten. He also led Iowa with five QB hurries against Iowa State. The Hawkeyes scored 11 QB hurries against ISU after recording just five in week 1.
Sophomore running back Bruce Anderson, one of six Floridians on NDSU’s two deep, put up a school-record 36.56 yards on 16 kick returns last season. He tied NDSU’s career record with two kick return TDs in the playoffs against Montana (100) and Northern Iowa (97). This season, Anderson has averaged 23.0 yards on eight returns.
Sophomore kicker Cam Pedersen is 2 of 3 on field goals this season, including a 52-yarder in the opener against Charleston Southern, which was the longest FCS field goal in week 1 and tied for third longest in NDSU history.
Iowa’s special teams have been solid across the board. Ron Coluzzi leads the Big Ten in touchbacks (12) and touchback percentage (80 percent — 12 of 15 kickoffs). He averaged 43.3 yards on four punts vs. Iowa State, one of which scored a hang time of 5.04 seconds. King leads the Big Ten with a kick return average of 34.67 yards (three returns) and is fifth in the Big Ten in punt returns (8.75 on four returns).
1. NDSU sees your Power 5 stadium and ... The Bison don’t care. We’ve mentioned that they’ve won their last five meetings with FBS schools. We didn’t mention all of those games were on the road, including Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium and Iowa State’s Jack Trice Stadium, two places where Iowa has lost games. It’s not even that so much as it’s the attitude that pervades this team from the hinterlands. Offensive tackle Landon Lechler is from a ranch in Beach, N.D., right along the Montana border. He’s probably seen rougher days than a football game.
2. Conversely ... Ferentz was asked this week if this is a lose-lose for Iowa. Of course, the No. 11 team, the defending Big Ten West Division champion, should win handily over an FCS school. So, win and nationally this probably doesn’t get much mention. Lose and the national folks will pick at the bones for weeks. Ferentz wasn’t having that talk, pointing immediately at the 2009 Iowa team, the one that won the Orange Bowl, needing two blocked field goals in the games final moments to steal a win from Northern Iowa.
3. Have fun out there — There’s an NDSU fan site that sells something called “Das Horn.” It’s a horn for drinking beer or whatever out of it. Probably beer, though. Both fan bases share a love for libations. There’s going to be some 7,000 NDSU fans today at Kinnick. You guys have fun and enjoy the shared experience. There will be plenty of Das Horns to go around.
NDSU WILL WIN IF ... The Bison put up five 20-plus plays. Iowa’s mantra forever and always will be limiting big plays. Five straight FBS teams have underestimated the Bison’s striking ability.
IOWA WILL WIN IF ... The Hawkeyes don’t get dainty on offense. It’s a step down in class, but a step up in weight class with NDSU. If the Hawkeyes establish a consistent run game, it’ll allow them to set up shop today and give them confidence it’ll be there in the Big Ten. The Bison are a Big Ten team with 63 scholarships.