Takeaways: 7 observations from Iowa's victory over Illinois State

Chad Leistikow

Iowa teammates surround running back Jordan Canzeri after his touchdown during their game against Illinois State at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015.

IOWA CITY, Ia. – Illinois State was supposed to hang with Iowa, right? Well, it was 31-0 Hawkeyes in the fourth quarter. The home school looked better Saturday than a lot of people thought they would.

According to Redbirds coach Brock Spack, that started with Iowa's new arrangement of linebackers.

"They have a little better foot speed at linebacker than they did a year ago," Spack said following his team's 31-14 loss at Kinnick Stadium.

Iowa basically blew up their middle three on defense after a humbling TaxSlayer Bowl loss to Tennessee. Josey Jewell moved to the middle to succeed departed Quinton Alston; Cole Fisher took over for Jewell on the weak side; and Ben Niemann replaced Bo Bower as starting outside linebacker.

Niemann drew heaping praise from Spack on Saturday after his first career start. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound true sophomore from Sycamore, Ill., totaled three tackles but helped disrupt Illinois State's zone-read running attack and blanketed receivers. Star running back Marshaun Coprich, the top rusher in FCS in 2014 with 2,274 yards, was limited to 32 rushing yards with a long of 7 on 13 carries. Quarterback Tre Roberson was sacked five times in the first half, once by Niemann.

Status Report: Breaking down Beathard's debut and other key factors in Iowa win

"To have a guy with that kind of size where you don't have to go nickel, that's really a plus," Spack said of Niemann. "It's difficult to block a guy like that in space, because he's so big and athletic. He was a handful for us."

New starter, leading tackler

Fisher's insertion into the starting lineup came just a week before Saturday's opener – a surprise on the outside, but a reward for a strong spring and summer.

"There was one day where I was playing all three linebacker positions – a bit of gymnastics," Fisher said in his first interview since winning the job. "But apparently I was doing the right things."

Against Illinois State, the Omaha, Neb., product led Iowa with eight tackles.

"A couple mistakes here and there," Fisher said. "But for a first start I'd say overall it was a pretty good success."

Brown: Bloodied Ott delivers bloody good Hawkeye show

Heckuva 1-2 punch

Save the blueprint from Saturday of how Iowa used LeShun Daniels Jr. and Jordan Canzeri out of the backfield. Daniels provided the thunder, with a bruising 123 rushing yards on 26 carries; Canzeri was the lightning, with 118 on nine touches – a team-high 90 receiving yards (including 51 on a screen to set up a field goal just before halftime) and another 28 rushing with a touchdown.

"It's really going to be a positive for us if we can both stay healthy and continue to make plays," Daniels said.

Iowa running back Jordan Canzeri breaks a tackle during the Hawkeyes' game against Illinois State at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015.

Perhaps Daniels' best run of the day was a non-descript 10-yarder on Iowa's second play of its 99-yard scoring drive. With Iowa pinned back at its own 3 on second-and-8, he waited for his blocks to develop and juked for a key first down.

Daniels' 26 carries were more than half of his previous career total (51).

"I feel fine. I'm not really all that sore, at least not right now," Daniels said. "It was fun to be out there."

Where was Derrick Mitchell?

He should be good to go this week at Iowa State, but the No. 3 running back didn't play Saturday after missing practice time with an unspecified injury. The sophomore had turned heads in the spring and summer after converting from wide receiver.

"He has been full speed the last couple days," head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "So hopefully we can get him built up there where we have confidence that he can play the way he needs to play."

Iowa fans celebrate a touchdown during the Hawkeyes' game against Illinois State at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015.

Smaller but mighty crowd

The attendance of 59,450 was the lowest for a home Iowa football game since 54,471 saw Iowa beat Buffalo, 56-7, on Sept. 6, 2003. But the gold-clad fans were engaged throughout – partly helped by the Hawkeyes' scoring touchdowns on their first two drives.

And then this happened on the third drive: The fans cheered after Iowa failed on a fake field-goal attempt. Kicker Marshall Koehn took a direct snap on fourth-and-10 and rushed left for 8 yards. Koehn said it was a play they had planned, so it wasn't a surprise. The crowd's approval kind of was.

"It was cool, that they were supportive of our fakes and us being aggressive," Koehn said.

Three true freshmen play

James Daniels, the 17-year-old younger brother of LeShun, became the first true freshman offensive lineman to play for Iowa since Bryan Bulaga in 2007 when he received second-team action at left guard.

"From what I could tell, it didn't look like he whiffed on anything," Ferentz cracked when asked about his first review of Daniels.

"But I thought he looked like he played well, and he's an interesting young man. He just doesn't seem to get real rattled about anything. ... If he's nervous, he doesn't show it. He played kind of like he practiced, which obviously has impressed us."

Two other true freshmen saw the field: wide receivers Jerminic Smith and Adrian Falconer. Neither had a reception.

The 99-yard drive that showed C.J. Beathard was right choice for Iowa QB

Paying attention

Iowa committed the game's only turnover, that being an Akrum Wadley fumble late in the fourth quarter that set up Illinois State's final touchdown. But that and five penalties were about the only eyesores of the day.

Ferentz praised his team's attention on fundamentals and details – something that's been a focal point since late November 2014.

"Their attitude has been good, their work ethic has been good, and they're paying attention to details," Ferentz said. "We're hardly perfect right now, but I like the direction we're moving."