Iowa (0-0) vs. Northern Illinois (0-0)
The Sports Network
DATE & TIME: Saturday, September 1, 3:30 p.m. (et)
FACTS & STATS: Site: Soldier Field (61,500) -- Chicago, Illinois. Television: ESPNU. Home Record: Iowa 0-0, NIU 0-0. Away Record: Iowa 0-0, NIU 0-0. Neutral Record: Iowa 0-0, NIU 0-0. Conference Record: Iowa 0-0, NIU 0-0. Series Record: Iowa leads, 7-0.
GAME NOTES: The Iowa Hawkeyes begin their quest for a fifth straight bowl bid when they take on the Northern Illinois Huskies on Saturday afternoon at Soldier Field in Chicago.
Iowa's 2011 season started off much more promising than it finished. The team came out of the gates 5-2, only to lose three of its final five regular-season bouts, ending the campaign with a 4-4 mark in the Big Ten Conference -- fourth in the Legends Division. The Hawkeyes were invited to the Insight Bowl but fell to nationally-ranked Oklahoma, 31-14. It was head coach Kirk Ferentz's first bowl loss since 2006, and with a 7-6 overall record, it marked just the fourth time in his 13-year tenure that the Hawkeyes had lost six games.
Northern Illinois' campaign got off to a rough start last year, with losses in three of its first five games, but first-year head coach Dave Doeren led his team on an incredible run to end the regular season as the team won its last eight games, including a 23-20 triumph over Ohio University in the Mid-American Conference championship game to claim their first ever league title. The Huskies' 10-3 overall record (7-1 in the MAC) landed them a spot in the GoDaddy.com Bowl, where they defeated Sun Belt Conference champion Arkansas State, 38-20. The Huskies have now qualified for a bowl game in each of their first four years in the FBS.
Iowa is unbeaten against NIU in seven previous meetings, winning by an average of 30.6 points per outing. The Hawkeyes won the last meeting exactly five years ago, 16-3, on Sept. 1, 2007 in a game also played at Soldier Field.
The Iowa offense hopes to improve here in 2012 after hiring former Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis to implement a new, more wide-open offensive scheme to better fit the skills of senior quarterback James Vandenberg. The veteran signal-caller is undoubtedly the key to the UI offense, and if he can improve upon his impressive 2011 statistics (3,022 yards, 25 TDs, 7 INTs), then the Hawkeyes are in for another successful campaign.
Though Vandenberg will be without his top target from a year ago in All-Big Ten receiver Marvin McNutt, Keenan Davis (50 rec, 713 yds, 4 TDs) has proven to be more than capable of assuming the role of No. 1 wideout. Kevonte Martin- Manley (30 rec, 323 yds) also figures to be in the mix after a solid freshman season.
There is some uncertainty revolving around the Hawkeye's running game, however, as the top candidates (sophomore Damon Bullock, freshmen Greg Garmon and Barkley Hill) have little to no experience. The running game isn't helped by the fact that the team returns only two starters on the offensive line.
After spending the previous 13 seasons as Iowa's defensive backs coach, Phil Parker was promoted to defensive coordinator to help shake up a unit that ranked in the bottom half of the Big Ten in scoring defense (23.3 ppg) and total defense (387.6 ypg) in 2011.
The Hawkeyes have historically been very strong at linebacker, and this season is no exception, as James Morris and Christian Kirksey both return after ranking in the top 10 in the conference in tackles a season ago. Corner Micah Hyde (72 tackles, 3 INTs) and safety Tanner Miller (76 tackles, 3 INTs) should provide plenty of big plays in the secondary.
The defensive line has a lot to prove this year. With the losses of Mike Daniels (13.5 TFL, 9 sacks) and Broderick Binns (12 TFL, 5 sacks), no returning player recorded more than 1.5 sacks in 2011.
The Northern Illinois offensive attack was one of the MAC's best a season ago, but the unit will have its work cut for it here in 2012, with only three returning starters from that 10-win team. With a slew of new players comes a new offensive coordinator, as 35-year coaching veteran Mike Dunbar takes over the play-calling duties.
Junior Jordan Lynch has the task of replacing perhaps the best quarterback in program history in Chandler Harnish. Lynch was impressive in limited duty last year (19-of-26 for 179 yards and 2 TDs), and his ability to make big plays out of the pocket (608 rushing yards, 6 TDs in his career) makes him an intriguing player.
NIU also lost its top running back from a year ago in Jasmin Hopkins (956 yds, 15 TDs), and it hopes to get similar production from a trio of young backs: Akeem Daniels, Jamal Womble and Leighton Settle.
One position the Huskies don't need to worry much about is wide receiver. Martel Moore (48 rec, 752 yds, 7 TDs) and Perez Ashford (47 rec, 530 yds, 3 TDs) are proven targets.
The Huskies defense came on strong to end the 2011 campaign, holding four of their last five opponents to 20 points or less, and the unit remains mostly intact with eight returning starters.
Cornerback Rashaan Melvin (78 tackles, 3 INTs), safety Dechane Durante (57 tackles, 3 INTs) and defensive ends Alan Baxter (12.5 TFL, 5.5 sacks) and Sean Progar (11 TFL, 5.5 sacks) figure to be the Huskies' top defensive performers this season.
After a successful season in 2011, both Iowa and NIU have high hopes for equal or better efforts this fall. Although NIU had a lot of turnover since its MAC Championship run last year, it has proven recently that it is a mid-major power and it will give Iowa a serious run for its money in this contest, but the experience of Vandenberg and the Hawkeye offense will be enough to claim their eighth straight victory over the Huskies.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Iowa 27, Northern Illinois 21
08/31 10:30:35 ET