Northern Illinois enters the season with MAC championship aspirations, but before the Huskies embark on that mission, they must navigate a challenging non-conference schedule that starts Saturday afternoon against Iowa.
Northern Illinois is certainly no stranger to facing teams from the Power 5 conferences. The Huskies are 11-24 against Power 5 opponents since 1999, including 6-14 against the Big Ten and 1-3 against the Hawkeyes. Northern Illinois was victorious the last time these two teams met in 2013, beating Iowa in Kinnick Stadium 30-27 on a last-second field goal. In that same time span, the Hawkeyes have won 20 of 25 games against Group of 5 teams, posting a 13-4 record against the MAC. Even with that heartbreaking loss to the Huskies, the Hawkeyes have outscored their MAC foes 631-233 in those 17 games.
Northern Illinois knows how tough Iowa is at home, but it's not like the Huskies are ducking any team this year. Besides the Hawkeyes, NIU also has a home game against Utah and road games vs. Florida State and BYU this fall. The Huskies are no doubt looking to add another big win to their resume. Meanwhile, Kirk Ferentz is aiming for a fifth consecutive season-opening victory while trying to maintain Iowa's dominance against the MAC.
Northern Illinois at Iowa
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 1 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Iowa -10
Three Things to Watch
1. Huskies' offense vs. Hawkeyes' defense
Iowa returns 24 players from last year’s defense (led by senior defensive lineman Parker Hesse), a unit that collected 63 tackles for a loss, 29 sacks and 21 interceptions. Northern Illinois has a solid offensive line, led by senior tackle Max Sharping, but this group will have its hands full against the Hawkeyes. NIU sophomore quarterback Marcus Childers will be under immense pressure for three reasons: the experience of Iowa’s defense, the potential for his offensive line to be overwhelmed and the fact that he'll be without two important pass-catching targets.
Senior wide receiver Spencer Tears (suspension) and junior tight end Mitchell Brinkman (ankle injury) won’t be available on Saturday. They’ll be replaced by freshmen Cole Tucker and Leon Payne, and what a way to begin your college career — taking on last year’s 18th-ranked defense. So not only will Childers have to shoulder more of the load, but senior wideout D.J. Brown and junior running back Marcus Jones will have to step up as well.
2. Hawkeyes' offense vs. Huskies' defense
Wide receiver Matt VandeBerg, running back Akrum Wadley and center James Daniels are gone, but Nathan Stanley is still the quarterback (he threw for 2,432 yards and 26 touchdowns last year). Sophomores Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin take over for Wadley (combined for 377 rushing yards and five touchdowns in reserve roles last season). Junior tight end Noah Fant (11 touchdown catches) and senior wide receiver Nick Easley (530 receiving yards) will be the top targets in the passing attack, and Ferentz will once again put out another solid offensive line.
Iowa runs a traditional pro-style offense in contrast to the spread offenses that Northern Illinois usually lines up against. The Hawkeyes will run the ball against the Huskies early and often. Kelly-Martin and Young may not be as dynamic as Wadley, but they’ll succeed under the watchful eye of Ferentz, while Fant and Easley will stretch the field when their chances come. Stanley isn’t a mobile quarterback, but he throws the ball quickly and with urgency.
Huskies defensive end Sutton Smith and linebacker Kyle Pugh are the leaders of coach Rod Carey’s defense. Smith is a converted running back who was the MAC Defensive Player of the Year last year, while Pugh has plenty of potential despite being limited to just four games due to injury. That duo, along with the rest of NIU’s defense, will have their hands full as Iowa uses multiple tight end sets, runs the I-formation regularly, hope to wear NIU down physically, and will look to limit the Huskies pass rush with quick, precise passes.
3. Iowa’s home-field advantage
Since taking over the program in 1999, Ferentz has guided the Hawkeyes to an 89-38 record at Kinnick Stadium. That includes a 22-game winning streak that lasted from 2002-05 in which they outscored visiting teams 794-266. The Hawkeyes do a pretty good job of defending their home field, and it’s quite the sight to see 70,000 fans wearing black and gold throughout the venue. It can be intimidating, but at the same time, the Huskies are no stranger to hostile environments; just ask Nebraska.
While you have to admire Northern Illinois' fearlessness and willingness to constantly play against bigger programs, Iowa has too much talent this time around, and their home-field advantage will be too much to handle. The Huskies keep it close, but the Hawkeyes will win their fifth straight opener.
Prediction: Iowa 28, Northern Illinois 20
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.