CN: What are the main things you're looking for out of this team against Northern Iowa?
Whitver: I think the biggest thing to look for in the opener is the attitude of the team, the play of the offensive line, and the quarterback situation. Coming off of such a tough season, it will be very important for Iowa State to develop a winning attitude in 2004. The first game of the year obviously sets the tone for the season, so it is essential that the team comes out with a positive attitude. After a 2-10 campaign, it is easy to lose your swagger, but hopefully the team comes out with the same attitude they had during the bowl seasons of 2000-2002.
The 2004 Cyclones will only go as far as the offensive line takes them. Especially with an inexperienced quarterback, the offensive line must lead the charge. If Iowa State fails to establish the run, it could be a long game for the Cyclones. Ideally, Iowa State will be able to run the ball with Stevie Hicks, which would go a long way towards making the freshman quarterback comfortable.
Quarterback will be the most interesting position to watch on Saturday. It is vitally important that the quarterback gets settled in quickly and is comfortable leading the offense. With such a young offense, especially at the skill positions, somebody must set up and lead the offense early. I think both quarterbacks will play, which could make it hard for one of them to become comfortable on the field.
CN: The Panthers come to Ames after a big 2003 campaign, and a lot of confidence that's been well publicized over the preseason. What do you think of this matchup?
Whitver: I think the matchup is a lot closer than Coach McCarney would like it. Northern Iowa feels extremely confident coming into Ames, especially after the close game last year. They thought they should have won last year, and they have had this game marked on the calendar for a long time. This is truly a game where Iowa State has little to gain and Northern Iowa has everything to gain. Iowa State is expected to beat a I-AA team, so if they do win, it isn't that big of deal. If they lose the game, it is a huge blow to the season. On the other hand, if UNI loses, they were expected to. If they win, it will propel them to a great season.
On paper, it should be a very good game. I think the difference will be in the offensive and defensive lines. Iowa State should have a more physical front, which should wear down the Panthers over the course of the game.
Whitver: The biggest thing that it does is takes the pressure off of both of them, at least temporarily. While they might feel pressure as far as the battle for number one goes, the pressure of winning the game doesn't rest on either of their shoulders. While both want to be the starting quarterback full time, the ultimate goal is winning ball games, no matter who the starter is. I think by having two guys that can play quarterback, neither one feels the weight of the University on their shoulders.
CN: How could this situation be a detriment in the long run?
Whitver: If a quarterback battle goes on too long, neither player becomes totally comfortable as the starter and leader of the offense. If a guy is playing to win the starting job all year, he is not totally focused on winning at all costs. I think that if it becomes a situation where the starter is looking over his shoulder all year, playing not to lose his spot, it could be very detrimental to the team.
CN: Would you like to see a starter named after the UNI game? Why or why not?
Whitver: I would definitely like to see a starter named after the UNI game. The Iowa game is the biggest, most intense week of the year, and it would be nice to be confident in a quarterback before the game. If the coaches aren't confident enough in one of them to name a starter, how can the quarterbacks be confident enough in themselves to lead the Cyclones to a victory in Kinnick Stadium?
The other thing that is hurt by a quarterback controversy is the continuity of the offense. It takes a period of time before a quarterback and his receivers click. If the receivers go into the game not knowing who is going to be throwing the ball, it is impossible for the offense to be at its best.
CN: What would be the best-case scenario for the running game this weekend, as far as what we'd see out of Stevie Hicks and the backups who figure to see playing time?
Whitver: This is the most critical part of the game for the offense. It is essential to establish the running game to take the pressure off of the young quarterbacks. How do you think Brad Banks was able to go from backup to second in the Heisman in a year? It was because he had very little pressure on him during a game. His offensive line protected him well, but they also won games because they could run the ball.
I think that the best case scenario for the running game is for Stevie Hicks to rush for 175-200 yards, while the backups get their feet wet in Division I football. Stevie is obviously the only running back with experience, so he is expected to carry the weight of the offense on his back.
CN: How do you see ISU's offensive front matching up against UNI's, and could this be a big key to the ballgame?
Whitver: I think Iowa State should have the horses up front to run the ball on UNI. The O-line has a decent amount of experience, especially out of Luke Vander Sanden, Cale Stubbe, and Aaron Brant. They should be able to wear down the Panther D-line as the game goes on. If they are having trouble making holes for Stevie, you can expect Iowa State to have trouble moving the ball.
CN: Defensively, talk about the Panthers' abundance of skill players on offense. What will the Cyclones have to do in order to be successful?
Whitver: This is where the Panthers have an advantage coming in. While Iowa State has talented quarterbacks, they do not have the experience of Tom Petrie. He is a four-year starter and has played in Jack Trice two times. He will not be intimidated coming in, and should lead the Panther offense well. Terrance Freeney is obviously a talented player. He is a guy that should be playing at a bigger school.
I think the matchup to watch is Iowa State's D-line against the Panther O-line. Iowa State needs to shut down the running game and put pressure on Petrie. If Petrie has time to sit in the pocket, it could be a problem for Iowa State's fairly inexperienced secondary. If the Iowa State D-line is not controlling the line of scrimmage, a veteran running back and quarterback could present some problems for the Cyclones.
CN: What are some match up concerns you have going in?
Whitver: The biggest match up concern for me is with the Iowa State O-line. While I think the Cyclones could have a good unit, there is not much depth. If any of the five starters go down, there is a considerable drop off to the second string. They must come to play, control the line of scrimmage, and most importantly, stay healthy.
CN: Finally, what are your keys to victory?
Whitver: Start Fast – As confident as UNI is, they will easily question themselves if Iowa State gets out to a fast start. With so many young players on both sides of the ball, it is important for them to get settled in and get comfortable early in the game. Early success makes it a lot easier to settle in. If Iowa State can score early and often, they should be in a good position to win the game. However, if UNI is able to match Iowa State's intensity from the start, they will gain more and more confidence as the game goes on. The longer they keep the game close, the better chance they have to win the game.
Create Turnovers – With a young group of skill players, it is a lot to ask for Iowa State to out-score UNI. It is important for the defense to come out and play a good game and create a lot of turnovers. If the defense can put the offense in good field position, they have a much better chance to be successful. It is very difficult for a young offense to put points on the board if they are constantly driving 80 yards to score.
Dominate the line of scrimmage – Iowa State must control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball to be successful. The Cyclones must establish the run if they want to win the game. This takes pressure off of the young quarterbacks. On defense, Iowa State must stop Terrance Freeney and make the Panthers one-dimensional. If Iowa State wins the battle in the trenches, they will win the game.