The Northern Illinois Huskies will start their 2018 campaign with a trip to Iowa City to take on the Iowa Hawkeyes. Saturday’s meeting will be the tenth all time between the two schools, with Iowa holding a comanding 8-1 record against the Huskies...however, the last time these two teams faced off in 2013, NIU won 30-27 on a last minute field goal.
In fact, the Huskies have done very well against B1G opponents under Head Coach Rod Carey. Since 2013 NIU is 4-1 against Big Ten foes with wins against Iowa, Purdue, Northwestern, and Nebraska. Their lone loss was a 20-13 loss to #1-ranked Ohio State in 2015.
Date/Time: Saturday, Sept. 1st, 2:30 CST
Where: Kinnick Stadium — Iowa City, IA
Watch: Big Ten Network
Odds: Iowa is a 10.5 point favorite and ESPN FPI predictor gives NIU a 12.4% chance to win
2017 record: 8-5 (4-5 B1G)
Stadium (capacity): Kinnick Stadium (69,250)
Head Coach: Kirk Ferentz (19th season), 143-97 record as Iowa’s coach
Offense (returning starters): Multiple (7)
Defense (returning starters): 4-3 (6)
Iowa is anchored by junior quarterback Nate Stanley. Last season Stanley started every game and had some solid numbers - 55.8% completion rate, 2437 yards, and 26 TDs to just six interceptions.
However, he is not a threat with his legs, as he lost 115 yards on the ground (most of which were from sacks). And, there’s a chance the Huskies could get to him big time this week as the Hawkeyes will be starting three new offensive lineman.
Two starting linemen, Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs, were suspended for this game; Jackson for violating team rules and Wirfs for an OWI arrest in July. Jackson’s replacement at left tackle is redshirt freshman Mark Kallenberger while senior Dalton Ferguson will take over for Wirfs at right tackle. Also making his first appearance is sophomore Cole Banwart at right guard.
Iowa’s ground game might be weakened by these changes...and the loss of Akrum Wadley, who rushed for 1109 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. In place of Wadley, the Hawkeyes will turn to sophomores Ivory Kelly-Martin or Toren Young. Kelly-Martin is the likely starter come Saturday but expect to see a heavy dose of both halfbacks. Last season Young carried the ball 45 times for 193 yards and two scores, while Kelly-Martin had 184 yards and three TDs on just 20 rushes.
The Hawkeyes top two receivers will returns this year - senior wide out Nick Easley and junior tight end Noah Fant. Easley had 51 grabs for 530 yards and four touchdowns a year ago while Fant was the go-to guy in the redzone, leading Iowa with 11 receiving touchdowns and amassing 30 catches for 494 yards.
The Huskies return nine offensive starters including four offensive linemen and their quarterback.
Sophomore Marcus Childers will return as NIU’s starting QB. Last season as a freshman he completed 57.4% of his throws for 1674 yards and 16 touchdowns while throwing just five interceptions. He also can use his legs to escape danger, rushing for an additional 473 yards and five scores.
He’ll be protected by one of the best offensive lines in the nation. Led by tackles Max Scharping (our #4 player in the MAC) and Jordan Steckler and center Luke Shively, the line has been setting the standard for the MAC and has been incredibly consistent. The three have started every game the past two season (with Scharping playing even more, starting in 39 straight games).
The Huskies lost starting tailback Jordan Huff and will look to replace his production with the duo of Marcus Jones and Tre Harbison. Last year the two combined for 640 yards and six touchdown.
When Childers looks to throw, he’ll be looking for either D.J. Brown (senior) or Spencer Tears (junior). Last year, Tears and Brown led the Huskies in receptions with 43 and 42 respectively. Tears also had 528 yards and four TDs while Brown was close behind with 365 yards and three touchdowns.
The Hawkeyes have lost their top three tacklers and six starters from last season team, leaving defensive back Jake Gervase their leading returning tackler. Gervase had 58 tackles, three picks, and six pass break-ups last season.
However, they do return their sack leader that will put the Huskies stout O-line to the test. Coming back is Anthony Nelson who had 41 total tackles (7.5 sacks and 9.5 TFL), two forced fumbles, seven QB hurries, and even blocked a field goal last year.
Iowa will also be sitting two defensive tackles for the game as starting DT Cedrick Lattimore has been suspended for violating team rules and backup DT Brady Reiff was suspended for a public indoxication charge.
The Huskies might be able to take advantage of the lack of experience on the Hawkeye defense and could keep this game closer than expected.
NIU had one of the top defenses in the FBS last season and looks like they could again this year.
Consensus All-American Sutton Smith will return for his junior season at defensive end. Last season he led the country in sacks (14), tackles for a loss (28.5), QB hurries (62) and QB pressures (73).
The Huskies also get linebacker Kyle Pugh back to replace Jawuan Johnson, who transferred to TCU. Pugh was killing it last season before an injury in the fourth game cut it short. Pugh only played in 15 full quarters last year but in those quarters he exploded for 35 tackles, and had a pick, a pass break-up, and two quarterback hurries.
With three inexperienced linemen, the Huskie defense could be in a good position to get to Stanley and the running backs in the backfield often and consistently. And that just might be the key to NIU pulling off the upset.
This game might be closer than a lot of people expect. The Huskie defense is still very strong and will be taking on a weakened Iowa line and unproven running back duo.
However, Stanley is a productive quarterback that can hurt you through the air if the Huskies can’t get to him quickly...especially since NIU has historically struggled against the pass for the last few seasons.
Iowa’s defense, even with just six returning starters, might be tough for the Huskie offense to crack. Childers will need to use both his arms and legs to keep drives moving and the Huskies ground game will need to get some space from their great line if an upset is to happen.
Iowa should win this one but don’t sleep on the Huskies. They should be able to keep it close and...if they can force some turnovers and get some offense going...maybe, just maybe, they could walk out of Kinnick with a two game winning streak against the Hawkeyes.
Iowa - 24
NIU - 17