I think Iowa State may have to use the pass to set up the run, but the Cyclones will still need to run the ball effectively to win this game. I don't care if it's Michael Wagner, Hiawatha Rutland, Stevie Hicks…or Stevie Nicks, for that matter…picking up the rushing yards for ISU. But, it would be advantageous for the Cyclones if their leading ground-gainer is NOT Austin Flynn. I think it's awfully dangerous for the freshman QB to be running the ball 20 times like he did against Iowa. Hopefully, ISU can find a way to establish a more conventional rushing attack. Advantage: NORTHERN ILLINOIS.
ISU pass offense vs. Northern Illinois pass defense: Through three games, Cris Love leads the nation with a 400.7 QB rating. Of course, he's only thrown three passes. ISU's starting QB, Flynn, has had a good start to his collegiate career, completing 55% of his throws, including four TDs versus two interceptions. It will be interesting to see how the freshman handles his first road game, but something tells me he won't be easily rattled. And THAT confidence should rub off on his teammates.
Alabama completed 22 of 39 passes for 276 yards and a score against NIU. The Huskies failed to make an interception and had only one QB sack in that game. If Flynn can avoid the rush and make some things happen with his stellar receiving crew, NIU might be forced to blitz more often than they would like, which could lead to some big plays for the Cyclones. I think Lane Danielsen will have a big day. Advantage: IOWA STATE.
Northern Illinois run offense vs. ISU run defense: Michael Turner is the MAN in the MAC. He's got good size (223 pounds) and speed (4.4)…and the Huskies use him a lot. In three games, Turner has 380 yards on 84 carries (4.5-yard average) and a couple of TDs. Against Alabama, he finished with 156 yards on 27 carries (5.8-yard average). If this guy gets it going early, the Cyclones are in BIG trouble.
Iowa State has done a very good job against the run. Led by guys like Jordan Carstens, Nick Leaders, Cephus Johnson and Jason Berryman, the Cyclones held Fred Russell to less than three yards per carry two weeks ago. That performance looked even more impressive after Iowa shoved the ball right through Arizona State last Saturday. If ISU can somehow contain Turner, it will go a long way toward winning this game. Turner may rack up a decent yardage total, but the Cyclones need to avoid giving up the big play. Advantage: PUSH.
Northern Illinois pass offense vs. ISU pass defense: The Cyclones might put enough emphasis on stopping Turner that they will force NIU quarterback Josh Haldi to beat them. Haldi, a junior, is a very good quarterback. Against Maryland and Alabama, he completed 37 of 59 passes (63%) for 415 yards, including four TDs and only one interception. P.J. Fleck is a dangerous receiver with 23 catches for 190 yards.
Iowa State has limited its opponents to an average of 150 yards passing per game and only two scoring passes in three games. In an effort to slow down the Huskies' running game, the Cyclones might give up more yardage than usual, but again, the key will be to avoid breakdowns that result in big plays. Advantage: PUSH.
Special Teams: The Huskies blocked two kicks against Alabama. NIU kicker Steve Azar made a 51-yard field goal in that game. NIU punter Anthony Gallagher averaged over 46 yards on seven punts. Ummmm…next category, please. Advantage: NORTHERN ILLINOIS.
Coaching: Similar stories at these two schools. Both Dan McCarney and Joe Novak took over dismal programs and, after a handful of struggles, have brought respectability back to their football teams. McCarney has led ISU to three straight bowl games. Novak has defeated an ACC team and an SEC team so far this year with a bunch of guys 98% of the country has never heard of. Advantage: PUSH.
Intangibles: A few months ago, this game scared me because I was afraid the Cyclones might look past it with Oklahoma waiting in the on-deck circle. THAT thought no longer concerns me. In fact, if one of these two teams is going to be complacent on Saturday, it just might be Northern Illinois. Everybody from Trev Alberts to Mark May to Lisa Guerrero thinks that the Huskies will roll against ISU.
After getting umpteen-thousand pats on the back this week on the DeKalb campus, perhaps the NIU players will become a little too full of themselves. They could be ripe for the picking. As soon as a Cinderella team becomes everybody's favorite pick, that's usually about the time that her slipper shatters on the opening kickoff.
Although the Huskies would love to defeat teams from the ACC, SEC and Big 12 in the same season, this game means more to the Cyclones right now. Advantage: IOWA STATE.
PREDICTION: There are a few basic keys for the Cyclones to be successful…
Win the turnover battle.
Don't allow any big plays on special teams.
Hold Turner to less than 125 yards rushing.
Achieve some balance on offense.
If the Cyclones can score early, I look for them to be in a tight game at halftime. In the second half, it will come down to turnovers and big plays (20+ yards). If Flynn can keep the chains moving…and avoid a couple of the mistakes he made against Iowa…it should be anyone's game in the fourth quarter. My guess is that ISU will benefit from two weeks of preparation. FINAL: IOWA STATE 27, NORTHERN ILLINOIS 20.
(Marty Gallagher founded the popular web site IowaSportsOpinions.com. You can e-mail him at Marty@IowaSportsOpinions.com.)