IOWA CITY, Iowa -- The Iowa Hawkeyes (1-0) head football coach Kirk Ferentz sees a lot of Northern Illinois in Saturday's foe Ball State (1-0). Both programs are out of the MAC. As a conference, the MAC has a lot of national games in Week 2 against Big 5 conference opponents.
Iowa struggled in back to back seasons against one of the MAC's top programs in Northern Illinois, finishing 1-1. Ball State is 0-2 during that period in MAC West race, finishing 7-1 last year behind NIU.
"When you're looking at Ball State, you're looking at a team that's similar to (Northern Illinois) in terms of the quality of their football and how they're coached," Ferentz said Tuesday during his weekly news conference inside the Hayden Fry Football Complex. "They're an excellent football team. They play well on the road, well at home, and are balanced offensively, defensively, and on special teams."
The Ball State Cardinals have won 17 of their last 19 regular season games. Ball State finished 10-3 overall last season, and opened its '14 campaign with a 30-10 victory over Colgate, limiting the Raiders to 227 yards and nine first downs. Colgate was 7-5, like UNI in FCS play in '13.
This is a different Ball State program today under head coach Pete Lembo, in his fourth season at the Muncie, Indiana school, best known for alumnus David Letterman. Lembo took over in 2011, after inheriting a 4-8 program.
The Cardinals have improved each season under Lembo, starting 6-6, 9-4 and 10-3. They are 0-2 in bowls, losing to UCF, then Arkansas State, during the past two seasons.
Ball State won at Virginia 48-27 in the only Big 5 conference match up for the Cardinals last year. Lembo beat IU in Bloomington 27-20 in his debut at Ball State in 2011. In 2012, the Cardinals lost at Clemson 52-27, but bounced back at IU with a 41-39 win. So, Ball State is 3-1 vs. Big 5, 2-0 vs. B1G, under Lembo.
The Ball State program is 0-2 in the Iowa series. The Cardinals have been shutout 101-0 combined. Iowa won 56-0 in 2005 and 45-0 in 2010, against two Ball State teams that were a combined 8-15, during the Brady Hoke and Stan Parish eras, respectively, at Ball State.
In '14, Ball State returns both kickers, five starters on offense and six starters on defense from last year. This is considered a rebuilding year in the MAC West, but for now they hope to reload and compete with the best that they face in '14?
Ball State had two 100-yard rushers in its opener (junior Horactio Banks, 134 yards; senior Jahwan Edwards, 109 yards), and first-year, sophomore quarterback Ozzie Mann threw for 203 yards and two touchdowns. Edwards entered 2014, as the top ground gainer, by career, of any FBS rusher returning in '14.
"They're balanced, and they want to be balanced", said Ferentz. "They've got good play-action off their running game, and their running game is effective and strong.
The Ball State offensive line returns three starters from last year, lead by pre-season all-MAC center, junior Jacob Richard.
"It is going to be another challenge for us. We're going to need to take a step forward and improve this week to be ready for another big game," Ferentz said ahead of the Week 2 game.
Junior Jordan Williams is the top returning wide receiver for Ball State in '14. As a receiving unit, there is less experience in '14 and the Cardinals are breaking in a new signal caller at quarterback, as already mentioned. QB Mann was 2-9 for 29 yards, one interception, in six games, as a freshman.
Ferentz was happy with the team's effort in its 31-23 victory over Northern Iowa, in the season opener, but he said the most displeasing part of the game was the Panthers' ability to produce big plays. Northern Iowa had seven plays of 20 or more yards that accounted for 279 of its 405 yards of total offense.
"Anytime you have something like that, it involves someone on the front end and the secondary," said Ferentz. "It's something we'll continue to work on. If we're going to have a good defensive ball club, we're going to have to eliminate those things, and that's a team thing."
Ferentz called sophomore Greg Mabin'sperformance in his Hawkeye debut one of the highlights. The Fort Lauderdale, Florida, native had four tackles and came up with the game-clinching interception.
"Greg did a good job his first time out," said Ferentz. "I think I'm safe saying just about anybody who hasn't played that did play did some positive things. Not that they can't get better, but at least there weren't any major gaffes or terrible breakdowns."
Ferentz says the team's downfield passing attack will come with time. Junior Jake Rudock completed 31-of-41 attempts for 256 yards, connecting with 13 different players, but only one completion went for more than 20 yards (a 46-yarder to Derrick Willies). Northern Iowa was flagged for two pass interference calls on two attempts down field.
"There were a couple of opportunities that maybe there was pressure and we didn't see it," said Ferentz. "That's part of offense, and there are going to be a couple of plays where you say `Geez, this was opening up.' As we move forward, we'll be a bit better at that and get a few more of those big plays in the repertoire."
Ferentz says the kicker and punter positions -- and all positions for that matter -- are open, but he is giving junior place kicker Marshall Koehn and junior newcomer punter Dillon Kidd every opportunity to succeed. Koehn was 1-for-2 on field goal attempts against Northern Iowa, while Kidd punted four times for an average of 36.2 yards.
"I know Marshall would have liked to have gotten that one field goal, and we'd feel better about that, and Dillon punted OK," said Ferentz. "He can punt better, has punted better, and I think that'll come.
"It's no good if they're looking over their shoulders. You can't do that. It's in fairness to both those guys that we've got to let them complete a little bit and perform, and then we'll see how it goes."
Ferentz said the time will come when redshirt sophomore C.J. Beathard will be inserted into a game as a change-of-pace quarterback, but when is still a question.
"It'll happen," said Ferentz. "I can't tell you when, I can't tell you if it's going to be this week or next week, but it'll happen. It's not a knock on him, but the game (against UNI) was just one of those deals. We'll figure that out, and we've talked about it, but whenever it happens, it'll happen."
Ball State at Iowa is one of many spotlight games that the MAC programs enjoy in Week 2 vs. Big 5 conference teams:
- Northern Illinois @ Northwestern
- Akron @ Penn State
- Central Michigan @ Purdue
- Missouri @ Toledo
- Eastern Michigan @ Florida
- Ohio U @ Kentucky
- Colorado @ UMass
Saturday's Iowa game will kick off at 2:35 p.m. (CT), and it will be televised on ESPN2 with Beth Mowins, Joey Galloway, and Paul Carcaterra on the call.
Our Prediction: Iowa 34, Ball State 14
We see QB Rudock as the player to click, as the Iowa Hawkeyes look to improve, which is expected between Week 1 and Week 2.
The linebackers for Iowa and back 7 on defense are new, with only two returning starters. Growing pains are likely to continue early in the season, as the Hawkeyes seek to prepare for the new B1G West division in 2014.