AMES — No. 24 Iowa State begins one of the most anticipated seasons in program history at 11 a.m, Saturday against in-state opponent Northern Iowa at Jack Trice Stadium.
This is the fifth time since 2013 the two teams have met.
A challenge — UNI will provide a good first test for Coach Matt Campbell’s team. The Panthers always play sound, fundamental football. They’re strong in the trenches and have a couple of playmakers that can do some damage.
“This is a really skilled football team coming in here,” Campbell said. “It’s a great challenge for all of our guys on the defensive side. I love their receiving corps. I love their tight end. I love what they have coming back at tailback. It’s a good challenge for us early on.”
UNI’s tight end is preseason FCS All-American Briley Moore, who led the Panthers in receiving last season with 536 yards and four touchdowns on 36 receptions.
The quarterback? — The question mark on UNI’s offense is redshirt freshman quarterback Will McElvain. McElvain is a true dual threat quarterback who passed for more than 2,000 yards as a senior at Des Moines Lincoln and rushed for more than 1,000 yards.
McElvain, who was a former preferred walk-on commit at Iowa State, has Campbell’s utmost respect.
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“He was a guy that just seemed to improvise and make plays and a guy that really was heady and carried his team consistently,” Campbell said. “He’s got this great ability to escape the pocket and yet keep his eyes downfield and make plays downfield. So, I think he presents a great challenge for us.
“I love his leadership. I really love his demeanor. It doesn’t surprise me that he’s put himself in a position to lead this football team.”
The defense — The biggest challenge UNI’s defense presents Iowa State is its ability to switch between four-man and three-man fronts.
“Defensively, they are multiple in so many ways,” Campbell said. “They show a lot of different fronts, a lot of different coverages. It forces our young guys to really be honed in. I think that’s the challenge of the first game. You don’t really know what you’re going to get, and you really try to pin that game. It comes down to, can we be disciplined, can we take care of the football?
“You can put yourself in a real disadvantage really fast, especially offensively when you’re playing a multiple defense like we are early on. We’ll have to make great adjustments throughout the game.”
Purdy progress — Iowa State found something special in quarterback Brock Purdy last season when he was just a true freshman. Now, as a sophomore what’s his progression going to look like? The game against UNI will provide the first glimpse.
Offensive coordinator Tom Manning said Purdy spent much of the offseason watching film and figuring out when to hang in the pocket and when he actually needs to scramble and make a play. Last season, Purdy fled at the first sign of trouble.
Campbell said the coaches also can go back and look at the film and better tailor the offense to Purdy’s strengths.
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“When you do that, he can take great ownership — whether that’s him calling plays or him making adjustments within the game,” Campbell said. “I think that’s the maturity of a collegiate quarterback — the great ones have the ability to take control of an offense.
“When you’re playing against the elite quarterback, you’re not playing against the offensive coordinator or the head coach, you’re playing against that quarterback because he’s the guy that’s making all of the adjustments throughout the football game. And at some point, we’d love for Brock to be that guy. I think he’s certainly that type of football player that has such a great mind for the game.”
Depth — Early-season games against FCS teams are often a great time for coaches to figure out what kind of depth they have.
One of the strengths of Iowa State’s defense is the depth in the front seven. Last year, nose guard Ray Lima missed the West Virginia game with a concussion and there was no noticeable difference when backup Jamahl Johnson stepped in.
What the Cyclones coaching staff wants to figure out is what kind of depth it has in the defensive backfield.
“It’s not the first group that determines how far you go,” Campbell said. “It’s the second and third group and what they look like. And then can we develop those guys as the season goes on?”
Iowa State 34, UNI 3
UNI is a perfect FCS team to play. It plays fundamentally sound football and is not a pushover, free-win team like some FCS programs. Iowa State will actually get a good gauge on how it played. That being said, Big 12 quarterbacks have a hard time navigating Iowa State’s defense. I’m not so sure a redshirt freshman in his first game is going to have success.