IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Iowa's favorable schedule has been the talk of the offseason. It's time to see if it's all that favorable.
Iowa hosts FCS rival Northern Iowa on Saturday as part of a manageable three-game home stretch to start the season. The Hawkeyes follow up with Ball State and Iowa State before taking trips to Pittsburgh and Purdue.
Iowa has the opportunity for a fast start that could leave it unbeaten heading into its first bye in early October.
But motivation shouldn't be an issue in the opener — not with the memory of a near-loss to Northern Iowa in the 2009 opener still hanging over the program.
"It took a miracle. Not good fortune, but basically a miracle for us to win," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of the meeting between the Hawkeyes and Panthers five years ago, when Iowa needed two consecutive blocked field goals to survive. "One thing is, if you just go back in recent history, these guys are going to be ready to go. There's no question about that. They really don't care where they travel."
Here are the some of the keys to watch for as Northern Iowa makes the 90-mile trek south to Kinnick Stadium for the fourth time in nine years:
WATCH OUT FOR JOHNSON: Northern Iowa senior running back David Johnson made a name for himself in last year's opener at Iowa State, rushing for 199 yards and scoring all four touchdowns in a 28-20 win.
"David Johnson is an outstanding player. It doesn't matter how you slice it, dice it, and that's run, pass or block. He'll do all the things you would ask a back to do, a really good back to do," Ferentz said. "We're going to have to really play good team defense because if you let him get going, it's not going to be fun."
RUDOCK READY: Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock, who will open his second season as the starter against the Panthers, said he has fully recovered from spraining both knees in separate incidents last November. "I'm not going to talk to you guys about knee stuff. I mean, my knees feel good," Rudock told reporters this week. "The offseason always helps with that stuff."
COMEBACK PANTHERS? Northern Iowa is coming off an uncharacteristically rough season by its standards. The Panthers, typically a FCS title contender, finished 7-5 and missed the playoffs. Northern Iowa has been picked to finish third in the Missouri Valley, and it was pegged 15th in the first FCS coaches poll. Still, the Panthers will be heavy underdogs against the Hawkeyes, who are 15-0 against Northern Iowa at home.
"It's always a tough challenge. But it's exciting and we embrace it," Panthers coach Mark Farley said. Iowa "is probably as good as they've ever been."
HAWK BACKS: Iowa seniors Mark Weisman and Damon Bullock will likely get the bulk of the carries for the Hawkeyes on Saturday. A major key for Iowa this season will be to keep Weisman fresh for the second half, when it hopes to use the bruising converted fullback to close teams out. Bullock, who is more of a threat in the passing game than Weisman, overtook Jordan Canzeri with an impressive fall camp.
VANDEBERG: Iowa fans have been justifiably excited about backup wide receivers Derrick Willies and Damond Powell, who each have the potential to make big plays in the passing game. But unheralded sophomore Matt VandeBerg has also earned a spot on the depth chart, and don't be surprised if he makes an impact in 2014.
"That's one of my favorite players on the team," starting wide receiver Jacob Hillyer said. "He's a guy you can definitely trust to catch the ball reliably. He's going to run good routes and he has speed."
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