Wins record within Ferentz’s grasp
IOWA CITY — Iowa’s opener has all the makings of a truly memorable afternoon at Kinnick Stadium.
If the Hawkeyes beat Northern Illinois as expected on Saturday, coach Kirk Ferentz will surpass beloved mentor Hayden Fry — who is scheduled to fly up to Iowa City for the occasion — with his 144th career victory at the school. Oh, and Iowa will also be celebrating the opening of a refurbished end zone, its biggest upgrade to Kinnick in years, and the debut of the “Tigerhawk” logo on the famed water tower a block away.
But it could also end up as a terrible day to be a Hawkeye, given the quality of the opponent and the uncertainty of Ferentz’s own club.
Iowa will be without starting tackles Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs against an NIU team that brings back 15 starters, was picked to win the Mid-American West division and will have the nation’s leader in sacks, Sutton Smith, poised to terrorize the Hawkeyes’ makeshift line.
The Huskies are also 4-1 against Big Ten teams under sixth-year coach Rod Carey, including a 30-27 win at Iowa five years ago.
“I really don’t want to talk too much about that right now, and for a couple reasons. I acknowledge the potential of the historic moment, but this thing can go either way. We know that,” Ferentz said Tuesday about the possibility of passing Fry.
Here are some of the keys to watch for as Iowa prepares to open its 20th season under Ferentz:
SCOUTING THE HUSKIES
Quarterback Marcus Childers was the MAC’s freshman of the year in 2017 after passing for 1,674 yards and 16 TDs, and he will have all five starters back on the offensive line to protect him. The defense, led by Smith, allowed just 22 points a game last year. “He’s taken on a leadership role. But he still understood what got him to be successful was that film room and that practice field. Those two things haven’t changed.” Coach Rod Carey said of Smith.
The Hawkeyes were 66th out of 130 teams in scoring offense a year ago, as they threw the ball better than expected but ran it worse than many thought they would. Iowa looks like it might have a more potent attack in 2018, with returning quarterback Nate Stanley (26 TDs, 6 INTs in ’17), a pair of star tight ends in Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson, an emerging group of wide receivers and a talented if unproven trio of backs. “I think the thing that does change is just being more comfortable on the field, not being so nervous before the game,” said Stanley, who had a shaky start in last year’s opener before emerging as one of the Big Ten’s better quarterbacks.
Iowa’s strength on defense will be its line, which should be formidable starting on Saturday despite suspensions to Cedrick Lattimore and Brady Reiff. The Hawkeyes will start three new linebackers for the first time under Ferentz though, and its secondary is talented but raw. Expect the Huskies to take shots in the middle of the field and challenge Iowa’s secondary vertically.
The Huskies, who also bring back their starting kicker and punter, aren’t shying away from Power Five competition this season. They also play at Florida State and BYU and host Utah. …Ironically, Ferentz’s first win at Iowa came against Northern Illinois in 1999. The Hawkeyes won 24-0, but that would be their only win that season. …The Huskies scored seven non-offensive touchdowns a year ago. …Iowa is 16-1 in openers since 2001.
HE SAID IT
“The big games we won in the ’80s got down to playing good, solid, fundamental football. I think (Fry) fooled a lot of people with the white pants, the sunglasses and exotic (plays). But when it came down to really winning big games, it was all sound football. That’s usually common everywhere you go, and pretty much any generation. I really believe that,” Ferentz said of Fry, who he worked for from 1981-89.