AMES, Iowa - Chad Spann and the Northern Illinois Huskies tend to attack relentlessly. That fact is not lost on the Iowa State Cyclones.
"He's a good (running) back. We're gonna have to swarm and punish him," said Cyclone end Rashawn Parker of Spann, who scored 19 touchdowns last season and averaged 5.8 yards per carry.
Truth be told, Iowa State's defense has more to concern itself with in Thursday's season opener than Spann, a 5-foot-9, 198-pound senior who was recently named to the 2010 Doak Walker Award watch list.
The largely inexperienced Cyclone front seven must worry about themselves, and fulfilling their defensive responsibilities.
In fact, Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads said his defense, as a whole, "is a work in progress. And I think it will continue to be, throughout the season. ... Those guys are going to have to improve daily.
"The secondary is the strength of the group - I think we have four cornerbacks that can all play," the second-year head coach continued.
"The linebacking corps is talented, but it's extremely thin," concluded Rhoads, who did, however, praise his defensive line, which figures to be led by junior nose guard Stephen Ruempolhamer.
Unproven youngsters like linebackers Jake Knott and A.J. Klein will be under the microscope Thursday night, attempting to keep the clamps on Northern Illinois veterans like quarterback Chandler Harnish. A 6-1 junior, Harnish has earned renown as the Mid-American Conference's most accurate passer and for his mobility. In 2009, he piloted a Northern Illinois offense that averaged 195.2 rushing yards per game.
"They run the ball extremely well," Rhoad warned.
"They have an offense that physically wears opponents out -I've studied a lot of football teams, but I don't know if I've ever seen an offense that can run ... the ‘Power-O' - a physical run play - more ways than they do."
"We love running the football," Huskies head coach Jerry Kill said this week.
Even on fourth down, Cyclone defenders had better have their head on a swivel Thursday. Northern Illinois' Kill has earned a reputation for calling upon trick plays at key moments.
"They were beating Purdue (in 2009), with four minutes to go in the football game, had the ball on their own fifteen yard-line," Rhoads noted, "and he faked a punt with success."
Northern Illinois eventually won that early season clash with Purdue, 28-21, en route to an appearance in the International Bowl.
This year, the Huskies, fashionable picks to be the MAC's West Division champs, again plan on being in the postseason. Yet, a win on Thursday in Ames might be a must for NIU, considering road games against Illinois and Minnesota also loom, later this month.
"Our kids are looking forward to" Thursday's opener," said Kill. "Sooner or later you've got to throw the kids out there and see where you're at. You never know how kids are going to react until the play."
Cyclone defenders hope they react well while trying to corral decorated Huskies like Spann and Harnish. Iowa State knows that shoring up a rush defense that ranked 86th last season is a top priority in 2010.
"We're going to try to take the fight to ‘em," said Cyclone defensive coordinator Wally Burnham.
"Stopping the run, that's our first goal," noted starting free safety Michael O'Connell.
"By no means have we arrived," O'Connell noted of his defense. "But, this first game, that's when we can see how far we've truly come."
Not only is Thursday the traditional night of "must-see TV," but, this week, in Ames, it's an opportunity for Austen Arnaud to fully prove himself.
Rhoads has noted all off-season how much his starting signal-caller has improved. But now the second-year head coach wants definitive, on-field proof.
"Without a doubt he's improved mechanically," Rhoads said of Arnaud, the senior who threw 14 touchdown passes last season. "Now he's got to go out, in a game setting and ... be productive," the coach added. "It's got to happen Thursday night, under the lights, for everybody else to see, before we're satisfied. I'm really anxious for Austen to get out there and play."
Arnaud, an Ames native, is equally ready to impress the hometown crowd.
"Nervous and anxious, just to perform," the quarterback said. "I'm just going to ... keep my eyes on the prize and keep focused."
PARKING UPDATE: Due to recent flooding in Ames, a large chunk of parking lots G4 and G5 will be unavailable this season.
"Please plan accordingly and carpool if you can," noted Mark Miller, Iowa State's parking division manager.