"Northern Iowa is a [Football Championship Subdivision] opponent, but a lethal opponent in terms of skill," said BYU outside linebacker David Nixon. "Their running back will be the toughest running back we will face this year. He has great speed, great vision and has the ability to cut it back, which is always tough to defend. He's going to be tough to defend and is someone that we are worried about."
Lewis set a UNI single-season rushing record last year with 1,513 rushing yards. His performance was the ninth-highest single-season total in league history. He is also ranked number 19 in the nation in rushing yards per game (116.38).
Lewis ran behind a very experienced offensive line last season, which is something he won't have this year. Offensive linemen Chad Rinehardt and Brandon Keith were both drafted into the NFL after last season. The Washington Redskins selected Rinehardt in the third round, and the Arizona Cardinals selected Keith in the seventh.
"Their offensive line is young," Nixon said. "They graduated four of the five starting guys, so they have some inexperience there, which we hope to exploit. But all in all they're going to be a good opponent and we'll have to get after it this week."
"You know, we treat every team as the same," said BYU assistant coach Steve Kaufusi. "We respect this team because they're a good [FCS] team. They've had a couple of offensive linemen drafted last year and their quarterback they had last year was pretty good. Quite honestly, I'm glad those guys are gone. They have one starter coming back on the offensive line this year. He played left guard but I think they moved him to right tackle this year. He's number 71, but the rest are new guys."
Leading the Panther offense will be junior quarterback Pat Grace, who played in seven games last season while backing up Eric Sanders. Grace completed six of seven passes, one for a touchdown. He also ran the ball 13 times for 85 yards, averaging 6.5 yards per carry.
"The quarterback they have this year is pretty good," Kaufusi said. "He's a new quarterback who played a little bit last year. In fact we've seen him play against Southern Utah. He's a big quarterback. They do a great job in coaching those kids in the fundamentals. They do some things like Utah does with a ride set offense. You just have to make sure everyone plays discipline. You know, who has the dive, who has the back and who has the pitch."
"They run a lot of ride, split back and blue offense," Nixon said. "The ride offense is when the quarterback reads the defensive end and, depending on what he does, either hands it off or keeps it. So their quarterback can run also and is a dual threat to both run or pass. He's a bigger guy at around 6'2", 235 pounds. I don't think he's as light on his feet as their running back is, but he's big and will try and run over you."
The Panthers like to spread out the defense when both running and passing the ball.
"They'll bring in a two- or three-receiver set," said Nixon about the Panthers. "They pretty much run everything with a bunch of wings. They like to move guys around a lot and try to trick you that way. They'll go with a bunch of 13 personnel, which is an offensive formation with one back and three tight ends."
With the different formations and multiple offensive reads, the key to the Cougar defenders will be not getting caught up in trying to play outside the defense. When thinking of examples when this was not done well, the Tulsa game of last season comes to mind. The Panther offense will test the Cougars' discipline. With personnel among the linebackers and the secondary, trusting in their fellow teammates to make plays while playing assignment defense is going to be key for the Cougars.
"Our defense is designed in a way that it doesn't really throw you off," said Nixon. "We expect them to come out and throw a lot of stuff at us, but I think we'll be ready. They're a quick team, so we've been going up against our scout team that's been giving us some good quick looks.
"I think our 3-4-4 defense is going to help us out tremendously. We have a great scheme that helps in defending multiple looks. Our guys are flying around right now playing assignment-sound defense. That's the thing with this ride-type of offense, is you have to play assignment-sound defense. If guys don't play assignment-sound defense and trust in one another, they'll get burned."
"The key to defending against this offense is to make sure our guys are playing sound defense," Kaufusi said. "I just want to make sure that whatever the defensive call is, that my guys know exactly the gaps of their responsibility and play with high effort. I see it as effort based and execution up front for us."
The Cougars simply can't overlook UNI in any way, shape or form. Panther head coach Mark Farley coached his team to a perfect record of 11-0 during the regular season last year and a No. 1 ranking for the final six weeks of the regular season.
"We can't overlook them," said Nixon. "They've gone 26-and-1 over the past two years, and have a great program with great coaches. We're expecting them to come out and throw everything at us. We expect the entire arsenal to be thrown at us, and it's a big game for them as well as for us. It's our season opener at our place with us being ranked nationally, so we're expecting them to come out and play physical."
Freshman outside linebacker Daniel Sorensen has been listed as David Nixon's backup. The 6-foot-1-inch, 208-pound true freshman gives his scouting report on the NIU offense in the audio link below.