One of the biggest keys to the Panthers winning 10 of 13 games a year ago was turnover margin. Northern Iowa gained 29 turnovers while losing only 19. An even more impressive figure is that returning quarterback Tom Petrie accounted for just seven interceptions while passing for 2,357 yards and 18 touchdowns. The bottom line is UNI takes care of the football, and the Cyclones must do the same
Turnovers played a big role in the Panthers keeping last season's meeting between the two teams close. Iowa State out-gained its opponent by more than 60 yards, but UNI had a great equalizer in turnovers. One example came late in the second half. With the Cyclones up 10-3, Austin Flynn threw an interception that was returned to the one-yard line, and led to a touchdown run by Terrance Freeney.
Cutting down mistakes on offense will be critical for a unit trying to find itself under first-time starter Bret Meyer. The fact head coach Dan McCarney plans on using both Meyer and Flynn could hurt the flow of the offense and that could lead to turnovers.
A steady dose of Hicks
The safest way for this offense to score points and be productive is to put the ball in the capable hands of Hicks, who has proven to be a great ball security running back. If the Cyclone offensive line is able to do its job up front, look for coordinator Barney Cotton to take the pressure off his young quarterbacks by running the ball. Hicks will get a majority of the carries, but a young crop of reserve tailbacks could also get their opportunity to play in a ball-controlled attack.
ISU hopes to find something going against a front seven that will need some time to gel. UNI's defensive line will send three returning starters to the field Saturday, including interior standouts Justin Heins and Kevin Stensrud. But the biggest question mark on its defense, however, is at linebacker where two playmakers Jonathan Harrell and Casey Tierney have graduated.
Stop the run first
Freeney and Richard Carter pose plenty of problems for opposing fronts. Freeney does a great job of providing balance to the Panther attack and put up big numbers as a junior, rushing for 1,261 yards and 16 touchdowns. Although Petrie is entering his fourth year as a starter and was the model of efficiency in 2003, ISU must first focus on Freeney and company.
Carter will also be an intriguing matchup because of his versatility. The 5-foot-6 skill player rushed 152 times for 859 yards and four touchdowns, but is also used as a receiver and hauled in 21 catches for 210 yards. The Cyclones must pay attention to this scat back who has always been difficult to bring down.