Expectations are soaring for Iowa entering the 2014 season. Picked by some to win the Big Ten West Division and reach the conference championship game, the Hawkeyes are trying to take the first step toward possibly their best year since 2009 when they open at home with in-state rival Northern Iowa on Saturday.
The 2009 season began with a great escape against the Panthers. The Hawkeyes blocked back-to-back field goal attempts in the final seconds to hold on for 17-16 victory and avoid an embarrassing loss to an FCS team.
That game -- and a 30-27 loss at home to Northern Illinois in the 2013 opener -- undoubtedly will be mentioned to the Iowa players this week in preparation for the first game. But the Hawkeyes are 9-0 against UNI in openers and have outscored the Panthers 393-44.
Iowa is getting much love in preseason projections based on the talent returning at a number of positions, starting with the offensive line anchored by left tackle Brandon Scherff, a likely top-five pick in the 2015 NFL Draft.
"They've got an outstanding chance to be one of the best teams in the country," Northern Iowa coach Mark Farley said of Iowa.
Junior quarterback Jake Rudock has a year under his belt as a starter and he's backed up by a collection of four running backs led by powerful senior Mark Weisman. Tight end is another position of strength and depth with Ray Hamilton and Jake Duzey leading the way.
Wide receiver is where the Hawkeyes could use more production. Senior Kevonte Martin-Manley has 23 career starts, and his 122 career receptions rank 10th in Iowa history. The rest of the receiving corps is developing but has some size and length.
"It's a little different than last year," Rudock said. "We had a lot of guys with a lot of experience. We've got some young guys this year. Hopefully we'll be able to move them along."
The focus on defense is replacing three departed starting linebackers from a year ago. Senior Quinton Alston waited patiently for his opportunity to be the man in the middle. Senior Carl Davis, a projected first-round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, is the cornerstone of a solid defensive line.
The other area of concern is the secondary. Cornerback Desmond King started 12 games as a freshman and senior John Lowdermilk is a veteran at strong safety. Jordan Lomax moved from corner to safety after last season.
While Northern Iowa is a 16?-point underdog Saturday, the Panthers are ranked 15th among FCS teams in the preseason and they aren't intimidated by FBS teams. Last year, they upset Iowa State in a nonconference game. Two years ago, Northern Iowa nearly pulled off an upset in Madison, losing 26-21 to Wisconsin, which went on to win the Big Ten title.
"You go back to the last five openers, one against us, it took a miracle, not good fortune, but basically a miracle for us to win," Ferentz said.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
--QB Jake Rudock is a smart quarterback who completed 59 percent of his passes for 2,383 yards and 18 touchdowns a year ago. The knock on Rudock last year was 13 interceptions. He's looking to cut down on that number after one season as a starter. "You see things a little quicker, which helps slow things down a little bit," he said. If Rudock struggles, coach Kirk Ferentz will not hesitate to play C.J. Beathard, who is talented enough for the Hawkeyes to entertain the thought of giving him some playing time.
--CB Desmond King became the first true freshman to start at corner for Iowa since 2002. He replaced injured Jordan Lomax in last season's opener and started the rest of the season. Lomax has since moved to safety. King finished sixth on the team in tackles with 69, including 12 at Ohio State, and added eight pass breakups and two fumble recoveries. Those numbers indicate he's not only a good coverage corner but also effective as a run stopper.
--RB Mark Weisman is one of four backs expected to see playing time for the Hawkeyes. Weisman is a senior who has rushed for nearly 1,000 yards each of the past two seasons. He is a battering-ram type who fits Iowa's identity as an inside running offense. He had some injury problems last season and offensive coordinator Greg Davis plans to lighten the load this season by turning to capable runners Damon Bullock, Jordan Canzeri and LeShun Daniels. Canzeri has the quickest feet of the four and rushed for a career-high 165 yards against Purdue in 2013.
--LB Quinton Alston was stuck behind some NFL-caliber linebackers but now he has his one opportunity to shine as a senior. He played in special packages last year and contributed 12 tackles and one fumble recovery. Alston is ready to take over in the middle now, and his production will be important because the Hawkeyes are thin at the position. "I think Quinton is one of those guys who's not being talked about who is really going to be a good player for us," coach Kirk Ferentz said.
SERIES HISTORY: Iowa leads the series with Northern Iowa 15-1. In the teams' last meeting two years ago, the Hawkeyes defeated the Panthers 27-16 in Kinnick Stadium. Northern Iowa last beat Iowa in 1898.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We're in a little better position right now, but the world can change fast, so it's just a matter of us right now, we've got to keep our foot on the gas. A guy like Tevaun Smith got better last year, but if he doesn't keep getting better, we can take that passing game and throw it in the garbage can." -- Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz on the development of the wide receivers.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Scouting the running game: Without a doubt, Iowa will be a grounded offense in 2014. Four diverse backs who mix power and quickness -- Mark Weisman, Damon Bullock, Jordan Canzeri and LeShun Daniels -- will be running behind a stout offensive line led by bulldozer left tackle Brandon Scherff and center Austin Blythe, who could finish his career with 48 starts. Weisman rushed for 975 yards and eight touchdowns a year ago. After running for 2,339 yards (4.2 average) in 13 games last season, the Hawkeyes will look to overpower Northern Iowa on Saturday. Two years ago against Northern Iowa, Weisman had a coming-out party with 113 yards on 24 carries and three touchdowns.
Scouting the passing game: Iowa has talked about being a more complete team. Last year, the Hawkeyes used multiple tight-end formations with success. With four tight ends on the roster who are capable receivers, Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock should have some big targets. The Hawkeyes passed for 228 yards against Northern Iowa two years ago, with Kevonte Martin-Manley, then a sophomore, catching five for 101 yards. One of Iowa's shortcomings year in and year out is the lack of speed with its wideouts, but that shouldn't be a as much of a problem in the opener against the Panthers it will be going forward against the Big Ten's top teams.
Scouting the run defense: The Hawkeyes face a formidable challenge against Northern Iowa senior running back David Johnson, who ran for 1,309 yards and 10 touchdowns last year and has more than 3,000 rushing yards in his career. Johnson had 77 yards rushing and 77 yards receiving against the Hawkeyes in 2012. "David Johnson is an outstanding player, it doesn't matter how you slice it, dice it, and that's run, pass or block. And we're going to have to really play good team defense, but if you let him get going, it's not going to be fun," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.
Scouting the pass defense: Three returning starters (Jordan Lomax moves from corner to safety) should help the Hawkeyes approach the level they achieved in the secondary last year when they ranked second in the Big Ten and ninth nationally with 174.7 yards allowed through the air per game. What was lacking for Iowa last year is a pass rush. The defense produced just 24 sacks, tied for 77th in the nation and eighth in the Big Ten. Northern Iowa quarterback Sawyer Kollmorgen is experienced and accurate, completing 62.9 percent of his passes last season for 1,824 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Scouting the special teams: The Hawkeyes also have not settled on a kicker to replace departed Mike Meyer. Ferentz is encouraged by the strides that Marshall Koehn and freshman Mick Ellis made in practice, but neither performed well in a public scrimmage this month. Returning punter Connor Kornbrath and newcomer Dillon Kidd were locked in a camp battle for the job, with Kidd slightly ahead early in the week. Kornbrath averaged 40 yards per punt last season. Senior Kevonte Martin-Manley is one of the top punt returners in the Big Ten.
DRAFT PROSPECTS (includes 2015 NFLDraftScout.com rating as applicable):
--OT Brandon Scherff (No. 2 offensive lineman, fifth overall) -- Scherff is a preseason first-team All-American in virtually every list and an early first-round pick on all the draft boards. Quarterback Jake Rudock's blind side should be well protected by the ultra-strong and nimble Scherff.
--DT Carl Davis (No. 2 defensive tackle, 22nd overall) -- Davis was second-team All-Big Ten a year ago and this season was named the preseason Lombardi Award watch list. Davis is tough to move in the middle and tie up blockers to help Iowa's inexperienced linebackers get to the ball.
--RB Mark Weisman (No. 6 fullback, 282nd overall) -- Weisman is a downhill runner who also has good hands out of the backfield. A running back at Iowa, Weisman projects as a fullback in the NFL at 6 feet, 240 pounds. He started his career at Air Force and transferred to Iowa.
--LB Quinton Alston (No. 21 inside linebacker, 412th overall) -- Alston finally has the opportunity to be the starting middle linebacker for the first time as a senior after patiently waiting his turn behind veterans ahead of him for three years.
--Backup DT Darian Cooper suffered a season-ending knee injury that required surgery. Cooper was expected to be a key reserve this season behind starters Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat. The junior played in all 25 games the past two seasons and had 18 tackles in 2013. With Cooper out, sophomores Jaleel Johnson and Faith Etakitie and freshman Nathan Bazata become the primary backup.
--Junior FB Adam Cox was lost for the season when he suffered a torn ACL during camp. Cox played extensively in all 13 games last season and the former walk-on had just received a scholarship days before the injury. He will be replaced by junior Macon Plewa, who saw action in 11 games last year.
--WR Damond Powell is progressing faster than expected from offseason sports hernia surgery. He returned to practice and contact last week. The original prognosis was that he wouldn't be ready until the Big Ten season. Meanwhile, WR Riley McCarron is expected to miss several weeks with a shoulder injury.
--Redshirt freshman walk-on Bo Bower, a local product from West Branch, Iowa, received a scholarship during preseason camp. He was impressive enough to be listed as a co-starter at outside linebacker with Travis Perry heading into the opener. The Hawkeyes awarded four scholarships to walk-ons during fall camp.
--Iowa's captains are defensive tackle Louis Trinca-Pasta, linebacker Quinton Alston, offensive tackle Brandon Scherff and running back Mark Weisman.
--Cody Sokol, expected to be Iowa's No. 3 quarterback this season, was named the starter at Louisiana Tech this week after transferring this spring.
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