IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa's one-point win over Northern Illinois in last season's opener felt like an escape for the Hawkeyes.
Iowa would view a similar result in Iowa City on Saturday as a sign of progress.
Nearly everything about these programs has changed in the 12 months since they last met. The Hawkeyes finished last season with a six-game losing streak and its worst finish since 2000, while Northern Illinois responded with 12 straight wins, a Mid-American Conference title and a berth in the Orange Bowl.
The Huskies enter Kinnick Stadium with a new coach in Rod Carey, who took over when Dave Doeren bolted for North Carolina State before the bowl game. But the expectations for Northern Illinois remain high — and hardly anyone would be shocked if the Huskies finish Iowa off in the rematch.
"To portray this as the Normandy invasion is not quite that level of importance," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "But it's an important game."
Here are five things to watch for as Iowa and Northern Illinois meet in a rematch:
1. QBs (NO) COMPARISON: Northern Illinois star Jordan Lynch became the first player in FBS history to throw for more than 3,000 yards and run for at least 1,500 in a season in 2012. He also accounted for 44 touchdowns — 18 more than Iowa had as a team. Iowa's Jake Rudock will be the first Iowa quarterback to make his career debut in a season opener since 1994. Iowa isn't ready to ask Rudock to win games quite yet. But the Huskies go as Lynch goes — although Iowa was one of the few teams to keep him under wraps last season. Lynch was held to a season-low 173 yards against the Hawkeyes.
2. BACK-TO-BACK BACKS: Iowa has depth at running back for the first time in years, with converted fullback Mark Weisman and Damon Bullock likely to split touches. But while Weisman is an old school, between-the-tackles type of back, Bullock does a lot of his best work in space — which is why he'll also spend time at wide receiver. The Hawkeyes also have the shifty Jordan Canzeri and freshman Leshun Daniels Jr., who emerged as a legitimate option following an impressive fall camp.
3. REVAMPED DEFENSE: For all the talk about Lynch in 2012, Northern Illinois also relied heavily on a defense that held opponents below 20 points a game. But the Huskies return just two starters in their front seven, and Iowa could look to exploit that behind a veteran offensive line and all those backs at its disposal.
"It's all about us right now, so we're not really worried about what quarterback is going to play. We just know that there's going to be a running back, so we expect them to run the ball and do stuff to get him in rhythm," Huskies defensive tackle Ken Bishop said.
4. LINED UP: Iowa's top defenses under Ferentz have typically started with a stout front four, and the Hawkeyes are hoping they'll be much better up front in 2013. Senior Dominic Alvis is back at end, junior Carl Davis could finally be set to emerge as an All-Big Ten-type player and there appears to be plenty of depth as well. But Northern Illinois returns all five starters on its offensive line, so Iowa will be challenged immediately.
"They've got a good Big Ten offensive line, not just a Big Ten offensive line. All their guys are back. They're big, physical guys," Ferentz said. "It's not like we're waiting four weeks to see how we match up with anybody."
5. NO ORDINARY OPENER: Iowa could use some positive reinforcement after dropping its last six games in 2012, which precipitated an offseason filled with questions about whether the program's decline is irreversible. Carey is faced with a front-loaded schedule in his first full season, as the Huskies play four road games out of five before hosting Akron on Oct. 12. Northern Illinois also doesn't know when its most experienced running back, senior Akeem Daniels, will be ready to return from a foot injury.
"We have an idea who we are. We don't yet completely know who we are. The only way to figure that out is through trials and tribulations," Carey said.
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