Can UNI beat Iowa? 5 reasons the Hawkeyes should be concerned

Andrew Logue
Iowa defensive lineman Carl Davis (71) and the Hawkeyes take the field prior to kickoff against LSU in the Outback Bowl on Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014, in Tampa, Florida.

It's been 116 years since Northern Iowa beat Iowa in football.

But who's counting?

Certainly not the folks wearing purple, who are a 16 1/2-point underdog in Saturday's 11 a.m. season opener.

"They've got an outstanding chance to be one of the best teams in the country," Panthers coach Mark Farley said of the Hawkeyes. "With the players they have, they're definitely in a good spot.

"And we're trying to find a way to put ourselves in a good spot."

Farley is putting Northern Iowa in a better position than most people realize, as an NCAA Football Championship Subdivision program with plenty of bite.

Iowa may have won the last 15 meetings – following an 11-5 loss in 1898 – but there are at least five reasons the Hawkeyes better take the Panthers seriously:

1. David Johnson

He's no longer a secret.

Johnson was the primary catalyst in Northern Iowa's 28-20 upset of Iowa State a year ago.

The 6-foot-3, 229-pound tailback ran for 199 yards (averaging 8.7 per carry) and caught four passes for 41 yards against the Cyclones – accounting for all four Panther touchdowns.

The Hawkeyes, meanwhile, were mostly stingy against the run. They allowed three running backs to rush for more than 100 yards in 13 games last season: Ohio State's Carlos Hyde went for 149, Wisconsin's James White ran for 132, and Louisiana State's Jeremy Hill ended the Outback Bowl with 216.

It should also be noted that Buckeyes' quarterback Braxton Miller scrambled for 102 yards.

2. Slow Starts

The opening month has not been kind to Iowa. Since 2007, the Hawkeyes have started 4-0 just once.

Northern Illinois nearly beat Iowa in the first game of 2012, then did spoil the Hawkeyes' opener a year ago at Kinnick Stadium 30-27.

Under coach Kirk Ferentz, the Hawkeyes generally try to survive August and September, in hopes of hitting their stride in October.

Northern Iowa is traditionally quick to seize an opportunity. Not only did the Panthers stun Iowa State in 2007 and 2013, they scared the living daylights out of Wisconsin two years ago. The Badgers survived the Panthers, 26-21, and went on to win the Big Ten title.

3. Back 7 Shuffle

Iowa is replacing all three of its linebackers, and the secondary has a reputation for being hit and miss.

When the latest depth chart was released last week, two redshirt freshmen (Bo Bower and Josey Jewell) were listed as potential starters at the outside linebacker positions.

Sophomores Desmond King (a returning starter) and Greg Mabin (a former wide receiver) are the top cornerbacks.

You can bet the Northern Iowa coaching staff will try to test Iowa's cohesiveness.

4. A Thin Line

When the Hawkeyes lost eight games in 2012, they were outscored by an average of only 3.6 points per game (and 8.1 per loss).

When they won eight games in 2013, they outscored opponents by 7.4.

What does this mean?

Answer: The margin of error is always thin for Iowa, and the score is almost always close – whether the Hawkeyes win or lose.

So, the Panthers generally don't have to worry about being blown out. And if things get tight in the fourth quarter, who knows what will happen?

5. Remember 2009?

Farley is probably haunted by what could have been five years ago.

If not for two blocked field goals in the final, frantic moments, Northern Iowa would have toppled its in-state rival. Instead, the Hawkeyes escaped 17-16.

The Panthers won't be intimidated Saturday. If anything, they'll be a little miffed.

"There's an excitement about the Iowa game," Farley said. "At the same time, it's got to be like a league game to us, as far as how we prep."