Will the Hawkeye Offense find a rhythm at some point in this game?
Brian: Last year, Iowa opened up against Montana and put an impressive 41-7 number on the scoreboard, but looking back, the game wasn't as impressive as it seemed that first day. Until nearly midway through the second quarter, Iowa was only leading 7-0, and with 5 minutes to go in the third, Iowa held a tenuous 17-7 lead. Four scores later, the final of 41-7 made many Hawk fans feel better. This year, I see Jake getting in at least 25 passes, while hopefully finding a way to get each RB at least 10 touches, more optimistically 15. Even in a potentially lopsided game, I could see Kirk Ferentz keeping Jake in, getting as many live reps as possible before the home opener against Syracuse under the lights. If given enough of an opportunity to get up to game speed, I see the Hawkeyes pulling away in the second quarter with a Ferentz-patented balanced attack.
Rob: There will be points where the Iowa offense looks smooth and others where it appears the guys just started working together yesterday. That's the nature of a unit with so many new players. It will be interesting to see if NIU loads the box as many of last year's opponents did to take away Young and Sims. Christensen is going to have to open up things a little with a short passing game to set the Huskies up for the big play by pass or run.
Jon: I don't expect this game to be a work of art. If I were NIU, I would bring the heat on defense, until Jake proves to me he can hurt me. That is nothing against Jake, I think it just makes sense. If you bring the heat for a series or two, and if Iowa scores on you and picks that stuff apart, you had to expect them to score at least one touchdown anyway. If it works, then the hounds will be coming all day. Iowa's offensive line look less than ready for prime time in the blitz pick up drills we saw on August 18th, but that was when they were shuffling people around, looking for the right fits. If NIU does bring the heat, and I expect Syracuse and ISU to do the same thing, you slow that down with screens and draws (thank you, Lee Corso and EA Sports). Hit the backs in the flat.
What will be the biggest surprise of Saturday's game?
Brian: Special teams. Iowa has not had an explosive special teams play in a long time (at least in a good way.) This will be the first sign of an improved group of role players on this team. There are plenty of athletic freshmen all too eager to run 60 yards and throw their bodies into another player on a kickoff team, or to take the hit to the ribs diving to block a field goal. I predict at least one explosive special teams play. Reminder: I'm not saying DJK will return a kick for a touchdown. An explosive play could be a 30 yard punt return, a blocked kick, a 50+ yard field goal, a great yard-per-return average, things like that. Heck, I'd even consider a touchback or two to be an 'explosive play' considering the new kicking rules. Something will happen, outside of the offensive and defensive phases of the games, to make you raise your eyebrows.
Rob: After last season, I don't know if anything will surprise me. I guess the biggest surprise for me will be if Iowa takes control of this game early and runs away. In reading our boards at HN, it appears that many Hawkeye fans view this one as a laugher. I just don't see it. As Brian stated, NIU was in the game with Iowa until a fourth-quarter drive clinched the home team clinched it at Kinnick. And in that game, Iowa bottled up Wolfe. This is going to be a dogfight for at least a half.
Jon: I have to agree with Rob on this one. If Iowa dominates this game from start to finish, I will be surprised and that will be such a good harbinger. If they don't, it's not the end of the world. I will be real surprised if Iowa's tight end tandem of Tony Moeaki and Brandon Myers don't catch a combined six passes.
What do you want to see from Jake Christensen?
Rob: A victory. I don't need to see 300 yards passing or five touchdowns or highlight reel plays. I just want to see Jake manage the offense and take care of the football. That's really what I hoping for this entire season. Last year's turnover numbers were atrocious. Jake needs to play within himself and rely on veterans at RB, WR and TE. If he could put a few long drives together, that would be nice, too, because the defense will need some blows with it still being hot this time of year.
Jon: Leadership, the kind we saw for much of the last decade out of the Iowa quarterback. That's not saying Drew Tate didn't lead, he just had a different style. I want to see Jake take command of the huddle, take command of the hectic pace around him and go Neo from The Matrix; live his life in slow motion while the bullets are coming at him. I just think he is wired to do just that. Will he make mistakes on Saturday? Sure, so will a lot of people. I want to see and expect to see those things not get to him.
Brian: I want to see a severe lack of turnovers and a severe increase in pocket presence. All young quarterbacks talk about the speed of the game. If Jake Christensen can get his reads and decision making up to speed early on, he should be ready to roll sooner rather than later. A pick or two isn't the end of the world, but if he can find a way to not be overwhelmed, it'll go a long way toward preparing for Big Ten road games, this first of which is at Wisconsin.
Who is your pick to click?
Rob: I'm going to go with Kenny Iwebema. The senior DE enjoyed few memorable moments last season and he seems poised to get it going again in '07. Iwebema will have his work cut out for him with NIU junior Jon Brost at RT. Brost is a two-year starter. Brost and Iwebema both are very athletic, so this should be a good battle. This is the type of match-up Iwebema needs to win if the Hawkeyes are going to have success on defense this season.
Jon: I just have a feeling that AJ Edds is going to have a monster season for Iowa. He is faster than he gets credit for, and in my opinion, he plays the most physically demanding position on Iowa's team outside of the linemen, the LEO linebacker. He takes on the fullbacks, he takes on pulling guards, he has to cover tight ends and backs. This kid is smart, and I was impressed with his size in my two interviews with him this past month. I think he will be the best LEO in the Kirk Ferentz era, and that is saying something.
Brian: Charles Godfrey. Norm Parker said that toward the end of the year, particularly in bowl practice and during the game, the light went on for Godfrey. He was aggressive throughout that game, using his speed and finding a bit of 'swagger.' That confidence is what made Antwan Allen and Jovon Johnson such productive (even if physically outmatched.) I believe that Charles will find a way to let his instincts and his mind catch up with his legs, and use that sub-4.4 speed to make some big plays. Mark it down – this year, Iowa's corners will be in quite a few more Hawkeye highlights than last year.
Which true freshman makes the biggest impact on Saturday?
Jon: Kirk Ferentz said on Tuesday that Colin Sandeman will play a lot. So Sandeman might be the safe pick here. But I will take Jordan Bernstine. I just envision this kid going projectile missile on special teams, and he may remind some of Bob Sanders in that regard. Remember Bob's first game in 2000? His first play as a Hawkeye, he broke David Allen's ankle, the elite kicker returner for Kansas State. That is of course, if Jordan plays on Saturday.
Rob: While we're going to see a large group of true freshmen debut on Saturday, most of their contributions will come on special teams. I do think Cedric Everson has a chance to get a decent amount of reps in the nickel and dime. He showed a nose for the ball in intercepting three passes during the open practice a few weeks ago. Although NIU has been known for running backs in the past, the Huskies also like to toss it around and with a fine group of receivers that will happen on Saturday. Everson will meet the challenge.
Brian: I'll go out on a limb on this one and say that Jevon Pugh will find time in the third and fourth quarters, and hit the NIU defense for 50-60 yards, maybe even more if he gets loose for a score or two. If ahead comfortable, Kirk won't hesitate to rest his first two tailbacks, leaving the second half for Paki and Jevon. Against Ball State in 2005, Albert only received 5 carries (which he turned into 61 yards and a score) before they sat him down. Shonn Greene came in and took care of business with 18 carries for 121 yards. If Iowa can find a way to get a comfortable lead, Pugh should make an impact.
What will Iowa's place kicking ‘line' be on Saturday, and who will win the job?
Jon: I will go with Austin Signor winning the job, and I will say he goes 2 for 3 in the field goal department, with one of them being 40 yards or longer. Austin showed a strong leg at the open practice, though Kirk Ferentz told the media on Tuesday that that was just one exposure they had to the kicking battle. I still think the line of the year was uttered by Andy Hamilton of the Iowa City Press-Citizen along the Kinnick sidelines back on August 18th; when Signor's foot hits the ball, it sounds like a car hitting a deer.
Rob: This one seemed pretty obvious to me during the open practice when Signor outperformed Daniel Murray. That's why it worries me that Coach Ferentz hasn't pulled the trigger on naming a starter and talked about using both guys when the season opens. Signor looks to the leader for this job, and he will get the majority of the calls on Saturday if not all of them. I'll give him 1 for 2 on field goals and all his extra points.
Brian: This would be Signor, and I'll say he's 3-3, but nothing much over 40 yards. Kirk would tend to err on the side of caution when putting a young kicker in the game. Last year, Kirk commented that he wasn't so sure about Signor coming in for the injured Schlicher, making a joking comment about how he sometimes hit the ground before the ball. Kirk still seems concerned about the battle at kicker, which means whoever wins the job, he'll want to give them a few gimmes before he tosses them out to boot a 48 yarder in Soldier Field.