Iowa hardly looked like a Big Ten contender in a narrow win over Northern Iowa.

The Hawkeyes will look to inch closer to their potential this weekend.

The key takeaway for Iowa following a 31-23 win over the Panthers last week was that a number of inexperienced players learned valuable lessons without actually costing the Hawkeyes a game.

Iowa's rebuilt defense was burned for a number of big plays and its offense was outgained by an FCS opponent, but coach Kirk Ferentz isn't overly concerned about the mistakes made in the opener — as long as they aren't repeated on Saturday against Ball State (1-0).

"What you worry about is if you don't have the right guys out there. But I think we have good players, and I think it's just a matter of us getting better, and we need to do that in a lot of positions," Ferentz said.

Ball State, a preseason favorite in the Mid-American Conference, opened with a 30-10 win over Colgate. The Cardinals ran for 311 yards and had a pair of 100-yard rushers in Horactio Banks and Jahwan Edwards, but space will be tougher to come by against the Hawkeyes, who allowed just 25 yards rushing against the Panthers.

Here are some of the factors to watch for on Saturday as the Hawkeyes host a team they've outscored 101-0 in two previous meetings (2005, 2010):

CHECKDOWNS FOR RUDOCK: Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock played it safe in his first start of 2014. Rudock finished with 250 yard passing on 41 attempts, though he completed 31 of them and threw for two touchdowns. Rudock also avoided turnovers a year after his costly late pick helped Northern Illinois beat the Hawkeyes in the opener. "There were some times where I might have left one a little early, but that can happen sometimes," Rudock said. "Sometimes you want to be able to throw it 30, 40 (yards) and get the crowd standing up. But sometimes it's what the defense throws at you."

STRONG CARDINALS DEFENSE: Ball State's defense had one of its best debuts in recent memory, holding Colgate to just nine first downs. Linebacker Ben Ingle led the way with 11 tackles. "Holding them to under 100 yards rushing and nine first downs and 227 yards total was a good, solid day for our defense," Ball State coach Pete Lembo said.

RUN ROTATION: Iowa rotated running backs Mark Weisman, Jordan Canzeri, LeShun Daniels Jr. and Damon Bullock with mixed results against Northern Iowa. Weisman led the backs 34 yards on 10 carries, and the offense combined to run for 151 yards on 36 attempts. "We'll just see how it plays out. I think any time you can change the pace, it's probably not a bad thing," Ferentz said.

BETTER BALL STATE: Though the Cardinals were shut out in their two previous trips to Iowa City, the program is in much better shape this time around. Ball State won the MAC West in 2013 while scoring a school-record 501 points, and it's lost just twice in its last 19 games. "They're just an excellent football team. They play well on the road, play well at home, and they're very balanced offensively, aggressive defensively and aggressive on special teams," Ferentz said.

PLAYMAKERS: While Iowa let up some big plays in the opener, its defense also made some. The Hawkeyes joined Michigan State as the only Big Ten schools with at least five sacks and two interceptions.

___

Follow Luke Meredith on Twitter: www.twitter.com/LukeMeredithAP