The intrigue for me, considering that this is the first game of the year, is in how certain rotations will work themselves out on the Cougar side of the football. Yes, UNI is a top FCS team and BYU has prepared as best they can for them, but they're still a FCS team that, BYU should win comfortably if the Cougars play their game.. If they're not on their game, then UNI could pose a challenge.
BYU running attack vs. Northern Iowa
Northern Iowa returns three of its starting four down linemen from a year ago and one of its three starting linebackers. The Panthers have decent size along the defensive front, weighing in at 255 and 265 pounds on the ends and 290 and 277 at the tackles. Their linebackers are a bit undersized, however, with two of their starting linebackers weighing in at just 215 pounds.
There is not a unit on BYU's team that performed better than the offensive line during preseason practices. The four returning starters, with the addition of Matt Reynolds, should prove to be overbearing to the Northern Iowa front on paper.
Prognosis: BYU's offensive front has struggled a bit in its run blocking against BCS opponents, but when they're presented with non-BCS defensive fronts they often dominate. I don't expect anything other than a dominating performance from Ray Feinga, Travis Bright and company this time around.
Oh yeah, BYU also has 240-pound Harvey Unga, who looked every bit as good in preseason practices as he did last season. Unga, coupled with BYU's dominating offensive front, looks to make the run advantage BYU should have over UNI the biggest mismatch of Saturday's game. Look for BYU to run for more than 200 yards Saturday.
What I'll be watching: I'll be watching for how the running back rotations are worked out. While Wayne Latu got a ton of work during Tuesday's practice as J.J. DiLuigi watched from the sidelines, their practice reps were practically flipped during Wednesday's practice. Who will end up with the most work between them holds a lot of intrigue, as they're neck and neck currently on the depth chart.
Leading Rusher: It's going to be Wayne Latu. BYU should get off to a big lead at halftime, which will give way to a lot of running the football and chewing up clock in the second half. Enter Latu as the second-half's primary runner, and there you go. Latu rushes for more than 100 yards, looking like he did against UNLV in 2005.
BYU passing attack vs. Northern Iowa
The Panthers return three of their four starting defensive backs from a year ago. Their tendency to play mostly out of a nickel formation should help their cause in stopping BYU's assumed prolific passing attack.
Max Hall returns everyone from his passing tree a year ago save Matt Allen. Austin Collie is back and looked completely fine during practices this past week. Add to that the contributions of O'Neill Chambers, Luke Ashworth and a much improved Andrew George, and the Cougars should have their way with Northern Iowa in throwing the football.
Prognosis: If BYU is to jump out to an early lead, it will subsequently lower the passing yards during the second half. Don't look for Hall to throw for much more than 300 yards in this game. He'll probably throw for a lot less, as I feel this game will call for a lot of running plays.
What I'll be watching for: I'll be watching for O'Neill Chambers and his contribution. Austin Collie and Michael Reed should both be getting the vast majority of reps initially, but I'll be very curious to see how Chambers, Luke Ashworth, Spencer Hafoka and maybe even Reed White are worked into the wide receiver rotation.
Leading Receiver: It will be Dennis Pitta. Pitta has looked very good this past week in practices and he'll present all sorts of matchup problems for the Panther defense. Look for Pitta to haul in about seven passes for more than 100 yards Saturday.
BYU run defense vs. Northern Iowa
No unit returns more from last year than the Cougar defensive line. Add to the returning talent players such as Russell Tialavea and Bernard Afutiti, and the prospects on the defensive front should be exciting to most Cougar fans.
Northern Iowa meanwhile prides itself on good and often dominating offensive line play. Northern Iowa will have to replace four of its starters from a year ago, two of which were drafted by NFL teams. While the Panther offensive line is well coached, having to replace those players and having their first game be against a very good Cougar defensive front may prove to be too much.
At linebacker the Cougars should be fine with an inside linebacker rotation of Matt Ah You, Matt Bauman and Shawn Doman. All players are experienced and can play. The same goes for David Nixon, who will enter his fourth year as a starter at outside linebacker. On the other side, Vic So'oto and Coleby Clawson will rotate to provide some good play.
At running back the Panthers field maybe their best overall player in Corey Lewis. Lewis ran for more than 1,500 yards a year ago and was named an All-American. Lewis is a good combo back with good speed to go around the edge.
Prognosis: BYU should win the line battle considering what UNI has to replace on its offensive front. The Cougar defensive front, coupled with some good returning talent at linebacker, should prove to be too much.
What I'll be watching: My eyes likely won't leave Vic So'oto during most running plays. So'oto's upside is huge, but it's still yet to be determined how good he fares in his gap assignments and open-field tackling. Should So'oto not prove up to the task, Coach Lamb won't hesitate to replace him with Coleby Clawson. So'oto is certainly talented enough, but I'm anxious to see how he performs in his first game at linebacker.
BYU pass defense vs. Northern Iowa
The Panthers will field a new quarterback who can scramble and run the option a bit. At receiver they return a lot of talent, particularly Jonny Gray, who is a real threat to break it open downfield.
The Cougars field a relatively new secondary, with Kellen Fowler being the only starter returning from a year ago. Both Brandon Howard and Scott Johnson have looked solid during practice, but both G Pittman and Brandon Bradley look able to fill the void should they not perform as expected.
Regarding rushing the quarterback, I like BYU's pass rushing options a lot in this game. We all know what Jan Jorgensen can do in rushing the quarterback, but look for Bernard Afutiti to get in there as well, as he's looked dominant during one-on-one drills in practice sessions.
Prognosis: UNI has the ability and opportunity to make some big passing plays in this game. The Panthers' offensive attack has been compared to that of Tulsa, and assuming BYU stalemates their running attack, the Panthers will be taking plenty of shots downfield. Look for them to convert on some of those deep passes but not convert on a consistent basis, and certainly not close to the base set by Tulsa last year.
What I'll be watching for: In the secondary I'll be watching for any rotation with the cornerbacks. Given the play and potential of both Pittman and Bradley, Coach Hill may tinker a bit with situational subbing.
I'll also be watching for how Coach Kaufusi runs his defensive line rotation at defensive end. Jan Jorgensen will obviously see most of the reps, but how Kaufusi works in Ian Dulan and Bernard Afutiti with starter Brett Denney holds a lot of intrigue.
Five Questions to be Answered
1. How serious is offensive coordinator Robert Anae regarding playing Austin Collie at quarterback? Will we see Collie get reps there during the game?
2. Who will prove more effective at Will linebacker between Vic So'oto and Coleby Clawson?
3. How effective will standout true freshman O'Neill Chambers be in catching passes and returning kicks?
4. Can BYU, with a relatively new secondary, defend well against the deep ball?
5. Can true freshman Justin Sorensen consistently kick the ball far enough during kickoffs to stunt any kick return opportunities by the Panthers?
Final Score Prediction: BYU 41, Northern Iowa 17