Iowa Football

Play Action: Northern Illinois Huskies at Iowa Hawkeyes

This is when we find out things about the 2018 Hawkeyes

Iowa hosts Northern Illinois on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium. (The Gazette)
Iowa hosts Northern Illinois on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium. (The Gazette)
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Breaking down Saturday’s season opener between Iowa and Northern Illinois at Kinnick Stadium. Kickoff is 2:40 p.m., televised on BTN.

The Huskies’ Vibe

1. Actual little brother — No, NIU people I don’t mean it that way. This is a compliment. Hear me out.

Six staffers between the two schools share Iowa-NIU ties. Iowa hired wide receivers coach Kelton Copeland and O-line coach Tim Polasek from NIU. Spent some time myself chatting with Dan Wolfe, director of internal football ops for the Huskies. We talked Cedar Rapids Prairie football.

It goes farther than coaches. This is from NIU’s game notes: Five common high schools from four different states are represented by nine players between the two schools. NIU O-lineman Cole Webster probably won’t block Iowa D-lineman Jack Kallenberger, but they’re Bettendorf grads. Park Center (Minn.) High School will be repped by Iowa’s Amani Hooker and NIU’s Adam Buirge, who’ll both be out there today playing safety.

Meet the NIU player named after Hayden Fry

Don’t focus on the “little” part. These programs are like middle-kid brothers. They share a lot of core values.

2. NIU coach Rod Carey — He played center for Bill Mallory at Indiana and definitely has that Big Ten bump-and-grind blood in him. When NIU is right and going to Orange Bowls, it has a galvanizing player and line play that is better than you think.

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3. The Galvanizer — Defensive end/sack dude Sutton Smith was a dominant football player for the Huskies last season. Tied for the nation’s lead in sacks with 14.0. The Des Moines Register got him on the phone this week and it was like he’d never talked to media. Here’s a lil’ dumplin’: “We can play with anybody. There’s nothing that we can’t do. We just know that we are the better team.”

It’s OK. You want your best player to inspire his teammates. That’s one POV. The other is Iowa’s. These quotes have been pasted in the Hansen.

4. Who’s the QB? — NIU QB Marcus Childers was the MAC freshman of the year last season (first Huskie in 32 years to earn that honor). The Georgia native started the final eight games and finished with 1,674 passing yards and 473 rushing yards, breaking the NIU record for total offense by a freshman.

Those are spread offense numbers.

5. Relevant numbers — Last season, NIU averaged 4.14 yards per carry and allowed just 2.97 (fifth in the nation). ... The Huskies were minus-2 in turnover margin last season. ... Childers’ yards per attempt was 6.3, seventh in the MAC last season. ... The Huskies play with pace. Their 963 plays were 30th in the nation last season. Iowa ran 836. The team with the higher number of plays Saturday probably has to worry less about the heat/humidity conditions.

What’s happening with the Hawkeyes?

1. The suspension gameI’ve written about the offensive tackles all week. Sophomores Tristan Wirfs (OWI) and Alaric Jackson (team rules violation) are out this week. Junior Levi Paulsen, redshirt freshman Mark Kallenberger and senior Dalton Ferguson are in.

Iowa actually has four players suspended for this one and the other two punched the D-line in the face. Juniors Brady Reiff (public intox) and Cedrick Lattimore (team rules violation) are out this week.

This elevates senior Sam Brincks into the starting lineup. Junior Garret Jansen and true freshman Tyler Linderbaum are getting a bump.

All Iowa up front for the Hawkeyes

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Defensive coordinator Phil Parker has said the D-line is the strongest position group on defense. With three linebackers making their first starts, this is a hot spot.

2. The heart of this team might be ... — Sophomore wide receivers Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith walked down for interviews Tuesday with their braids whipping around the top knots on their heads.

They’re a captivating duo ... potentially. Both dipped their toes in last season. This season, Smith-Marsette’s speed is being counted on at WR and as punt and kick returner. Smith caught three passes last year. He’s a big body at 6-3, 219. These two are potential playmakers the offense can rally around — beyond QB Nate Stanley, tight end Noah Fant and wide receiver Nick Easley.

They also embody the youth of this roster. There are 23 freshmen and sophomores on the depth chart. You’re going to see a lot of new faces in the next few weeks. There will be ups and downs along with that.

3. Running back percentages — I just say don’t worry about it. That will take care of itself. Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz made that point last week. It’s time to get away from the thinking that Iowa just wants a 230-pound back. I think they want the Swiss Army knife guy who can do a lot of things. (See the New England Patriots.)

Last season, Akrum Wadley carried 52.3 percent (252 carries), and James Butler had 19 percent (91 carries). If you really listen to Brian Ferentz, notice the variables he mentions. That was last year, this year is going to be a different ride. That will emerge.

4. Punter — Tuesday was fun when head coach Kirk Ferentz jokingly admitted to making mistakes in the depth chart Iowa released Monday.

The depth chart listed sophomore Ryan Gersonde as No. 1. It’s actually junior Colten Rastetter (14th in the Big Ten last season with 37.78 per punt). Ferentz regretted the error (he didn’t, but it still was funny).

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At this point, you have to let this happen. Iowa doubled down on their guys. Their guys need to come through. Let’s leave it at that and see what happens.

5. Relevant numbers — Your eyes are on pass protection Saturday. Iowa’s sacks allowed dropped to 25 last season (56th in the nation). In 2016 and 2015, that number was 30. Stanley is rounding third into “franchise QB” status speaking in relation to Iowa. Saturday, he’ll have three players with two starts protecting the edge. Two of those three will be seeing their first significant playing time. Kallenberger is making his first start. It’s going to be a challenge. ... In 2015, Iowa made it to the Rose Bowl with a scoring offense number of 30.9 points per game. What happens when Iowa averages 30-plus points in a season under Ferentz? Iowa went 12-2 in 2015 (30.9), 9-4 in 2008 (30.3), it was only 7-5 in 2005 (30.5), the 2002 team went 11-2 on 37.2 and in 2001, Ferentz said they turned the corner with an Alamo Bowl win and a 7-5 record on 32.6 points per game. Mostly good things happen at 30 points per for Iowa.

Prediction

Iowa 20, Northern Illinois 17

If Iowa can’t control tempo with the running game against what is a very good Mid-American Conference defense, that’s not the end of times, but it’s not great, either.

l Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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