Hawkeyes analysis: Iowa's keys to keep Bison from rising

Mark Emmert

IOWA CITY, Ia. — FCS doesn’t stand for Fundamental Chips on Shoulders, but it might as well.

That’s the first thing you need to know about the North Dakota State football players that are invading Kinnick Stadium on Saturday — they aren’t here for a pat on the helmet and a $500,000 check. They’re here for respect, the kind they feel they can only truly earn by grinding up FBS opponents and hushing the crowds in their big, fancy stadiums.

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The second thing to know is the Bison are no run-of-the mill FCS outfit. Their fans are a thundering horde. They will be taking over the Coralville Marriott for a Friday evening pep fest and sprawling through the Iowa City West High School parking lot for Saturday morning tailgating. They might be outfitted in the colors of vomit (an unfortunate combination of green and yellow), but don’t scoff them away as beer-chugging rubes. They know football.

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The Bison win championships, five in a row and counting. They subdue FBS teams, five in a row and …

Well, the counting may stop when North Dakota confronts No. 11 Iowa for an 11 a.m. kickoff (ESPN2). The Hawkeyes figure to have the advantage in talent and muscle all over the field.

The Bison counter with something that defies easy measurement: Belief.

This is a game for the ages for North Dakota State’s athletes, who must split 63 scholarships and only occasionally get national television exposure. The Bison didn’t play an FBS team last season; they won’t do so again until facing Oregon in 2020. Saturday’s game is a one-off for many of these players. You know they want to make the most of it.

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So the first key for the Hawkeyes on Saturday is to bring the proper attitude, to realize what’s at stake for their opponent while also recognizing this is the best test they’ll face in the first five weeks of the season (yes, that includes Northwestern, which just lost at home to Illinois State, a less-accomplished FCS program than NDSU).

The longer Iowa allows the Bison to feel at ease, the harder it will be to assert its dominance. The Hawkeyes’ first two games were essentially over by halftime; it would behoove them to follow that formula again. Or risk witnessing another Bison takeover.

Here are two matchups I think Iowa must control:

Attack the cornerbacks

The weakness of NDSU’s defense is in its young secondary, particularly at cornerback. Sophomores Jalen Allison and Jaylaan Wimbush are first-year starters and a prime reason Eastern Washington racked up 450 yards through the air last week in an overtime loss to the Bison.

Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard is adept at exploiting mismatches. Wide receiver Matt VandeBerg is too. That combination alone should make it a long day for NDSU.

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VandeBerg has 11 catches for 228 yards in two games. Iowa’s other wide receivers — Riley McCarron, Jerminic Smith and Jay Scheel — have combined for 10 receptions and 112 yards. This is a great chance for the Hawkeyes to find more balance there, although it may not be needed.

Smith and Scheel are often pointed to as “speed” guys that can stretch a defense, and that may prove true. But VandeBerg is showing he’s in that vein as well, much more athletic than the “possession receiver” label would indicate. He and Beathard are in perfect sync.

“He’s one of the hardest workers on the team. He does it day in and day out during the offseason, works his tail off,” Beathard said of VandeBerg. “He’s a smart player. We know he’s going to be where he needs to be at the right time.”

Like the end zone. Look for it again Saturday; there may be nothing the Bison can do to stop it.

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Stuff the run

Iowa has been getting great production from the tailback duo of LeShun Daniels Jr. and Akrum Wadley. Credit can also go to a veteran offensive line, a tight end whose primary function is blocking and even a fullback at times.

NDSU can say the same thing. Waterloo native Lance Dunn and King Frazier have totaled 296 yards and four touchdowns in two season-opening overtime wins. The Bison have an extra wrinkle in that quarterback Easton Stick has picked up another 105 yards on the ground.

It’s long been part of the Bison identity, and there’s nothing fancy about it.

“They're going to come out and block you,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “They're not trying to run around and slip people, finesse them. That's not their style.”

It’s what allows the Bison to control the clock, enjoying an advantage in time of possession in 32 of their past 33 games.

It will test an Iowa defense that showed vulnerability against the run in the opener against Miami of Ohio, allowing 158 yards on the ground while having to stay on the field for 36 minutes and 21 seconds. That was without middle linebacker Josey Jewell, who was ejected early in the opener but played a full game last week and was the main reason the Hawkeyes put a stranglehold on Iowa State’s ground game.

Iowa limited Cyclone star tailback Mike Warren to 28 yards in a 42-3 victory, with Jewell leading the way with nine tackles. The Hawkeye defensive tackles, particularly senior Jaleel Johnson, were stouter as well.

That’s the type of performance Iowa is going to need again Saturday.

Johnson called the Bison the best team Iowa has played this year, and compared their offensive line to Wisconsin’s.

“They’re very consistent. They don’t take any plays off. They’re definitely a hard-nosed football team,” Johnson said. “The offensive line is very tough, very gritty, very huge guys that can move for their size.”

That sure sounds like respect. It’s what the Bison crave, and it’s the mindset Iowa must have to emerge victorious Saturday.