With his team’s 25-20 victory over Iowa State last season, Northern Iowa's Mark Farley became the winningest coach in Panthers history (134-67 in six years). Second-year Cyclones head coach Matt Campbell hopes his team is ready to even the score at home in the comfy confines of Jack Trice Stadium as the two kick off their 2017 campaigns.
But if the preseason hype surrounding this veteran Northern Iowa team, ranked No. 13 in Athlon Sports preseason FCS Top 25, is to be accepted, it may be another very long game for Iowa State. And things only get more difficult from here for the Cyclones with fellow in-state rival Iowa waiting in the wings. It’s probably safe to say that Iowa State desperately needs this win over their in-state brother from the FCS ranks.
The Cyclones lead the overall series, which dates to 1899, by a comfortable 21-6-3 margin. But the Panthers have taken three of the last five, including last year’s victory in Ames.
Northern Iowa at Iowa State
Kickoff: Saturday, September 2, 2017, 7 PM
TV Channel: Cyclones.tv (Mediacom)
Three Things to Watch
1. Who plays up and who plays down
Most years these FCS vs. FBS games are considered gimmes for the larger school. But Northern Iowa is not a typical FCS program, while Iowa State, in spite of Matt Campbell's best efforts to date, has not been the most consistent of FBS teams. With Northern Iowa winning three of the past five, including the last game played in what was clearly a down year for the Panthers (5-6 overall), this could be the something's-gotta-give year for this matchup. Will Iowa State, with stable of veteran playmakers on offense and bountiful experience in the secondary, begin to move in the direction Campbell was hired to push them? Or will Northern Iowa once again stumble to a mediocre finish in a far less competitive Missouri Valley Football Conference? This could be the game that not only sets the tone for each team's 2017 season but also as it relates to the futures of their respective programs.
2. Panthers’ veteran defense vs. Cyclones’ “new” QB
Northern Iowa returns a total of 16 starters from their 2016 team, nine of those on defense. The strength of the Panthers’ defense figures to be up front, as five key linemen return from a unit that held opponents to 310.2 yards and 22 points per game in 2016. But if Northern Iowa lets Iowa State move the ball inside the 20, things could get dicey for a defense that allowed opponents to score on 9-out-of-10 trips (23 of 25, 92 percent) inside the Red Zone last season.
To that end, the Cyclones have tabbed Jacob Park (above, right) as the clear-cut No. 1 quarterback after the junior shared the duties with Joel Lanning last season. Look for Park to challenge the Panthers through the air after throwing for 1,791 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2016 despite not getting the bulk of the work under center.
3. Iowa State’s offensive weapons
The running back duo of David Montgomery and Mike Warren is back after combining for 1,102 rushing yards last season. Montgomery, a sophomore, led the team with 563 yards in 2016 while averaging 5.2 yards per carry. Warren, a junior, was the Big 12’s Offensive Freshman of the Year in 2015 and was right behind Montgomery with 559 yards last season. The top target in the passing game is senior Allen Lazard, who was named to the Biletnikoff Award watch list for the second straight season and the preseason All-Big 12 team. The senior already holds the school record for consecutive games with a reception (35 and counting) and needs just seven receptions and 678 receiving yards to become Iowa State’s career leader in both categories. With Park, Montgomery, Warren and Lazard, the Cyclones now have the pieces for an offense that could begin to show the kind of promise for Matt Campbell his squad needs in their on-going rebuilding efforts.
This college football season is marked by a significant decrease in the number of FCS vs. FBS matchups, especially among the Power 5 conferences, and for good reason. It's simply neither fun nor entertaining to watch teams from the lower subdivision of NCAA football get beaten up by schools that not only have a decided advantage when it comes to talent, but also financial resources. Unfortunately, as it relates to this game, apparently the powers that be at Iowa State view this series as beneficial to the program’s future prospects, while Northern Iowa views it as an opportunity to produce another upset and claim in-state bragging rights in a world where fellow in-state rival Iowa, at the Big Ten's behest, has stopped scheduling the series.
If there is any justice in the universe, the Cyclones could signal their own end to this series with a decisive, lopsided victory over the Panthers on Saturday. To accomplish this, watch for the Jacob Park-to-Allen Lazard connection put on a clinic which could signal exactly the type of "new attitude" and beginning the Cyclone program was counting on when it hired Matt Campbell.
Prediction: Iowa State 35, Northern Iowa 14
— Written by Robert A. Boleyn, a UCLA-trained screenwriter and member of the Athlon Contributor Network since 2015. He attended both the University of Iowa and UCLA, and after nearly 25 years in Southern California now calls the Greater Chicago area home. Follow him on Twitter @BoleynRobert.