Saturday, August 31, 2013

Game Day: Northern Illinois vs. Iowa Hawkeyes in Season Opener at Kinnick Stadium

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Even with a first-year starter making his University of Iowa debut at quarterback today against Northern Illinois, the Hawkeye offense is more comfortable heading into the second year of offensive coordinator Greg Davis' system.

Note: It is the first time in nearly 20 years that an Iowa quarterback is taking his first snaps in black and gold as a starting quarterback in a season opener.  Iowa returns six starters on offense in 2013.

"We know how to spit back what he would say," said redshirt sophomore Jake Rudock, the winner of a three-man race to be Iowa's starting quarterback. "He says certain words and we respond in a certain way so he understands.

Rudock was recruited out of Florida by former offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe, who is now in his second season as WR coach for the Miami Dolphins.  Last year's QB James Vandenberg had a difficult time transitioning away O'Keefe's pro-set offense into the new Davis system.

"You have to understand that his terminology is the easiest way to talk to him (Davis) and the fastest communication, just like learning a new language."

The Hawkeyes never clicked offensively in 2012, averaging 18.8 points and 286.8 yards per game in the first year of Davis' new offense. With another spring and fall under its belts, the unit has seen progress.

Rudock has two springs under his belt with Davis in Iowa City, after arriving in the fall of 2011.  He redshirted in 2011 in O'Keefe's final season as OC.

"We have a better understanding of the offense," said junior offensive tackle Brandon Scherff. "We worked on it during camp and in spring ball. We have to keep moving forward."

Senior tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz says the addition of the no-huddle attack has added a new dimension that will allow the offense to improve and get more opportunities.

"We were comfortable last year, but we added a couple of extra things (this fall), like the no-huddle, and a couple of extra trickery plays," said Fiedorowicz, who was third on the team with 45 receptions for 433 yards and one touchdown in 2012. "The offense is a little different.

"Last year, we got 70 plays per game. With the no-huddle, it will be closer to 80-90 snaps a game."

That will give playmakers like WRs Tevaun Smith, new JC transfer Damond Powell, Don Shumpert, RBs Damon Bullock, Mark Weisman, and Jordan Canzeri more opportunities in 2013. Smith says the Hawkeyes are a faster team, which will help both the rushing and passing attacks.

"There is a lot more speed on offense," he said. "We're able to stretch the field, so we're able to run and pass the ball at the same time. We have the best of both worlds... you don't want to have only a running offense."

Whether it's handing the ball off or directing the team's passing attack, Rudock knows he needs to do the little things to put the Hawkeyes in a position to improve on its 4-8 record from a season ago.

"I have always thought as a quarterback you have to manage the game," he said. "There are going to be plays you make and plays you miss and regret, but that's football. It is an up-and-down sport. (I want to) play and have fun, that's the biggest thing, have fun, and make sure the guys are on the same page and do our best."

Iowa is ready to showcase an improved offense and get back on the field.

"We have been working for eight months, I am ready to play," said Bullock.  The junior out of Texas will likely see action as both a running back and in the slot as a receiver in 2013.

"We have been hungry since our last game," said Weisman. "We have been working hard, but all that set aside, now we have to show it on the field."  Weisman, a junior from Illinois, played fullback vs. Northern Illinois, with 2 carries for 4 yards.  So, if he can maintain the average as a starting running back, how nice would 20-25 carries translate vs. NIU?

For Iowa to be competitive in the Big Ten in 2013, it will start with defense and solid special teams.  The season opener and four non-conference games will be important for Iowa in 2013.

After three weeks of training camp, game week arrived on Monday for the University of Iowa football team. The Hawkeyes turned their focus on Saturday's opponent, Northern Illinois, and have been preparing for the Huskies all week.

Iowa is 8-0 the series with Northern Illinois.  Kirk Ferentz has won 12 straight season openers, as he opens his 15th season as head coach for the Hawkeyes.  There will be plenty of streaks on the line at Kinnick today vs. Northern Illinois.

Northern Illinois (12-2), who have won the Mid-American Conference the last two seasons, return 13 starters on offense (8) and defense (5). The Huskies' main offensive threat is quarterback Jordan Lynch, who made his first career start vs. Iowa last year in the season opener in Soldier Field.

Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker has been putting together the game plan this week for his defensive unit.  Iowa returns eight starters themselves on defense, lead by a trio of senior linebackers, in James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey.

"This is a very talented team (NIU)," said Parker. "They spread the ball out, run a lot of option and also run the quarterback draw, so obviously you have to stop him. You have to make sure you respect all of their players, like we do, and defend the whole field."

Lynch, now a senior, enters this season as the NCAA record holder for rushing yards by a quarterback in season (1,815) and the owner of 14 NIU school records. Heisman winner Johnny Manziel was the only player to gain more yards of total offense than Lynch a year ago.

When it comes to preparing for a dual threat quarterback in practice, Parker credits the Hawkeye scout team.

"I believe our scout team did a great job preparing, and it all starts there," Parker said. "I think the guys have been focused."

In addition to returning an all-American quarterback, the Huskies return an experienced offensive line, returning all five starters from a year ago.

"They have a good offensive line, and I believe our guys are up to the challenge," said Parker.  The offensive line is lead by junior LT Tyler Loos, a strong pass blocker in the MAC per Lindy's.

The Huskies will be without returning starting running back, senior Akeem Daniels, who is injured for the Iowa game.

Last year, Northern Illinois had a potent offense ranking 12th in the country averaging 38.6 points per game. Iowa's defense held the Huskies to 17 points, sacked Lynch six times and forced one turnover in its 18-17 triumph in last year's season-opener in Chicago.

Parker said the team is eager to get the season started.  The Hawkeyes beat three bowl teams in 2012, including Northern Illinois. 

"Our guys are really excited about getting out there in Kinnick Stadium and seeing the support from our fans," Parker said.

Northern Illinois will be making its first visit to Iowa City since 2006. The Huskies have lost their last 14 road season openers since 1983.

Coach Rod Carey is the third head coach in four seasons for Northern Illinois, after becoming replacing Dave Doeren, who left for North Carolina State, ahead of the Orange Bowl game vs. Florida State.  Like Ferentz, Carey is a former OL coach, who played center at Indiana.

Special teams should be strong for Iowa in 2013 lead by seniors PK Mike Meyer, KR/DS Jordan Cotton and LS Casey Kreiter for the Hawkeyes.  Also, sophomore Connor Kornbrath returns at punter for the Hawks.  The question will be how Iowa replaces outstanding CB Micah Hyde, who was also Iowa's punt returner and a gunner on special teams, along with Cotton.

Northern llinois returns senior PK Matthew Sims.  A new punter will start in 2013 for the Huskies. KR Tommylee Lewis and PR A.J. Sebastiano both return on the Huskies special team units.

Kickoff is set for 2:42 p.m. (CT) inside Kinnick Stadium in a game that will be televised on the BTN with former Hawkeyes Paul Burmeister, Chuck Long, and Danan Hughes calling the action.

Our Pick: Iowa 29, Northern Illinois 16 - Iowa appears to have improved depth and the overall roster heading into 2013. Star quality may be lower the 2008-2010 period, but overall depth looks stronger.

We shall see over the course of the 2013 season, if the Iowa Hawkeyes are improved.

Bowling Green in the MAC looks to knock off the Northern Illinois Huskies, after three outstanding seasons of double digit victories.

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