Hawkeyes face intriguing opening foe in Northern Iowa

Andrew Logue
Is a banner season in store for Jake Rudock (15), Mark Weisman (45) and the rest of the Iowa football team? More and more analysts seem to be think so, including ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit.

IOWA CITY, Ia. – Admit it, this is sort of fun.

When the college football season kicks off at 11 a.m. Saturday in Kinnick Stadium, you'll have more than a passing interest, because the outlook seems rosy for Iowa and Northern Iowa is a familiar thorn.

"There's something about playing somebody inside your state that gets everybody a little bit more hyped," Hawkeye tailback Damon Bullock said. "They've been trying to take us out for a while, so it's definitely a great rivalry game.

"It's going to be missed."

Bullock was referring to a shift in the Big Ten's scheduling philosophy, away from matchups against the NCAA's Football Championship Subdivision programs, such as the Panthers.

The idea is to create better non-conference games, even though last season's opening week saw seven FCS teams score wins over Football Bowl Subdivisions schools – on the road.

"You can't look past anybody," Iowa defensive tackle Carl Davis said. "(Northern Iowa) is going to be a great opponent. They've got a great running back. They've got a good offensive line, quarterbacks and receivers.

"I'm sure they've got good coaches, also."

Davis wasn't just recycling a company line. The Panthers and coach Mark Farley have earned state-wide respect, which makes this game more intriguing than a date with FBS opponents such as Ball State (which visits Iowa City next week), or even Northern Illinois (a mid-major power that split season-opening games against Iowa in 2012 and 2013).

The Panthers haven't beaten Iowa since 1898 – losing 15 straight in the series – but if you forgot about their 28-20 win at Iowa State a year ago, you may remember the Hawkeyes' narrow 17-16 escape in 2009.

"They've challenged every team they've played, pretty much," Iowa running back Mark Weisman said. "It's going to be a great challenge for us."

The relationship between Iowa and UNI is rooted in recruiting.

Beloved former Hawkeyes such as Allen Reisner, Brandon Myers and Tanner Miller all considered playing for the Panthers before officially wearing the black and gold.

"There are a lot of good football players at all levels," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "People don't realize how fine a line it is."

The Hawkeyes began this week with two potential starting linebackers, Bo Bower and Josey Jewell, who might have been entering the visitors' pink locker room Saturday morning.

"I learned a long time ago, 'Never worry about the ones you don't get, take care of the ones who have been with you,''' Farley said. "It goes back to the quality of (high school) football in Iowa, and we're very underrated as a state."

The Panthers have celebrated their share of rags-to-riches successes.

Former all-pro quarterback Kurt Warner tops a list of UNI luminaries that includes ex-NFL most valuable player Bryce Paup.

Paup's son, Alex, is currently a starting linebacker for the Panthers.

"With FBS, there is a certain draw," Farley said. "Yet, at the end of the day, the most important thing any individual will tell you after they're done is, the amount of playing time.

"It's one thing to be on those (FBS) teams, but until you break the huddle in a game … that's the experience we all dream about."

So don't tell the Hawkeyes or Panthers this showdown lacks appeal.

"It kind of makes me upset when people say that," Davis said. "Those guys are hungry. A couple years ago, they almost beat Wisconsin.

"We're just trying to make sure that doesn't happen to us."