Ball State Cardinals vs. Iowa Hawkeyes: A Way Too Early Non-Conference Preview

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Ball State's first road test of the 2014 season will bring the Cardinals to Big Ten country.

To the starting quarterback of your Ball State Cardinals: Welcome to big boy football.  The Cardinals head to Kinnick Stadium in Iowa to do battle with a Big Ten opponent for the first time since knocking off Indiana in 2012.  Ball State head coach Pete Lembo is certainly no stranger to slaying power conference foes, but he'll have his work cut out for him.

Iowa Hawkeyes 2013 Rewind:

The Hawkeyes enter the season following an 8-3 effort in 2013 that culminated with a 21-14 loss to the LSU Tigers in the Outback Bowl.  Iowa's 5-3 record in conference play was good for a second place tie in the Big Ten's now defunct Legends division.  At no time were the Hawkeyes ranked throughout the season, though they did score victories in their final three conference games.

Mascot:

Iowa's mascot is Herky the Hawk, who made his first appearance at an Iowa sporting event in 1959, and is named after the Greek God Hercules.  "Hawkeyes" comes from the book The Last of the Mohicans and was used to describe the people of Iowa.

Conference/Division:

If you were reading this a handful of years ago, you wouldn't be reading this.  Because you knew every school in the Big Ten Conference, and divisions didn't exist.  For those who haven't kept up with conference realignment, here's a refresher.  For the 2014 season, Iowa will participate in the Big Ten's West Division.  Joining Iowa will be Purdue, Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, and Wisconsin.  Playing in the Big Ten's East Division will be Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State, and new additions Maryland and Rutgers.

Last Bowl Appearance:

Iowa played in the Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida last January against the LSU Tigers.  LSU put a lid on a 10-3 campaign, knocking off the Hawkeyes 21-14.  Iowa managed just 233 total yards in the loss.  This may have been most painful though:

Head Coach:

Kirk Ferentz enters his 16th season leading the Hawkeyes.  In those 16 seasons, Ferentz has amassed an overall record of 108-79, including 64-56 in Big Ten play.  Iowa's been invited to 11 bowl games under Ferentz's leadership, winning 6.  On a nearly annual basis Ferentz will draw interest for head coaching vacancies in the NFL.  He has frequently stated that he has no interest in these positions, and is presently under contract at Iowa until 2020.

Five Key Players:

Offense:

2014 Iowa football will be all about the ground and pound.  And why not?  The offensive line, long a staple of Hawkeye football, will be among the best in the Big Ten.  Returning are Brandon Scherff at tackle, All-BIg Ten first team a season ago, and Austin Blythe at center, honorable mention.  They'll help pave the way for senior running back Mark Weisman.  The 6-foot 240 pound senior rushed for 975 yards and 8 touchdowns last year, reaching 14th on Iowa's career rushing list.

That's not to say the Hawkeyes can't throw the ball.  Quarterback Jake Ruddock was efficient enough through the air last season to keep defenses honest, completing 59 percent of his passes for 2,383 yards and 18 touchdowns against 13 interceptions.  Last year Ruddock became one of just three quarterbacks since 2008 to pass and rush for four-plus touchdowns in their first four career games, joining Robert Griffin III and Johnny Manziel.  The 6-foot-3 208 pound junior ranked fifth in the Big Ten in total offense and sixth in passing yards.  Iowa must improve upon an offense that ranked 11th of 12 conference teams in red zone efficiency last season.

Defense:

Iowa was a stalwart on the defensive side of the ball in 2013.  The Hawkeyes ranked second in total defense during league play last season, yielding just 303 yards a contest.  Returning from that defense will be 6-foot-5 315 pound defensive tackle Carl Davis, named second team All-Big Team by the coaches last season.  Joining Davis will be senior defensive tackle Louis Trinca-Pasat.  Last year Trinca-Pasat earned All-Big Ten honorable mention honors, starting all 13 games for the Hawkeyes.

The Iowa secondary won't make it any easier passing the ball for opposing offenses in 2014.  John Lowdermilk, the senior strong safety, also started all 13 games last season, en route to being named All-Big Ten honorable mention. The Hawkeyes will look for an increased contribution from 5-foot-11 190 pound corner back Desmond King, who last season became the first true freshman to start in the Iowa secondary since 2002.

Special Teams:

Marshall Koehn takes over placekicking duties for the graduated Mike Meyer.  Koehn converted his only extra-point attempt last season.  Connor Kornbrath returns as punter.  Last year Kornbrath ranked ninth in the conference, averaging 40 yards a kick.

Kevonte Martin-Manley will provide some explosiveness for the Hawkeyes special teams in 2014.  Last year he ranked 8th in the nation in punt return average at 15.7.  He also became the first Big-Ten Conference player to ever return back to back punts for touchdowns in a game.  Additionally, he'll be a top option for Jake Ruddock.  Martin-Manley ranks 10th in career receptions and 25th in receiving yards in Iowa history.

Early Prediction:

I'm under no expectations whatsoever that Ball State leaves Iowa City with a W.  That will be exactly the second start for the Cardinals quarterback, whomever that may be, and traveling to Big Ten country this early is a pretty intense way to begin your career.  That said, with Lembo at the helm all things are possible.  Even with the departure of Keith Wenning, I firmly believe that Ball State will not suffer that descent to the basement all too common when a head coach or record breaking athlete leaves a MAC school.  With Lembo's tutelage and Ball State's returning talent at the skill positions, I'm confident they'll put a dent in the scoreboard.  If not, Ball State fans and alumni should continue to remind themselves the school is getting $900,000 to play in the game.  So really we've already won.

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