CEDAR FALLS, Iowa --- Northern Iowa and Iowa State will take one step down the college football trail Saturday night.
That’s all, folks.
No matter what happens following the 7 p.m. kickoff at Jack Trice Stadium, there will be miles to go before the Panthers and Cyclones call it a season.
That said, no one wants to take a step backward on opening night. Not Paul Rhoads’ team. Not Mark Farley’s.
Said the UNI head football coach, “I think anytime you win it’s a good win. When you’re playing the opener, it creates momentum for your season.
“I think it sets a tone at least for the early part of your season and it answers a lot of questions — maybe — that you have going into that football game and what your team is going to be about.”
Unquestionably, both the Cyclones and Panthers have personnel questions that can’t begin to be answered until the first four quarters of football are in the books.
UNI, for instance, will deploy three new starters in the defensive secondary, another trio in the offensive line, a new long snapper and a punter with little or no experience in a college football game.
Iowa State will begin to discover if it truly can fill the void left by the departure of linebackers Jake Knott and A.J. Klein and veteran wide receivers like Josh Lenz.
But the Cyclones also bring plenty of proven players to week one. Three starters are back in the secondary. Jeremiah George returns at middle linebacker. Sam Richardson gives ISU its first clear-cut No. 1 quarterback in several seasons, and James White leads a corps of veteran running backs.
For UNI, quarterback Sawyer Kollmorgen will try to build on an outstanding rookie season. David Johnson had a breakout performance in 2012, and he is a threat as a runner and pass catcher. Even without injured Brett LeMaster, the Panthers have experience at wide receiver.
Defensively, linebackers Jordan Gacke and Jake Farley plus tackle Xavier Williams lead a front seven that’s much more settled than it was for the 2012 opener at Wisconsin.
Both sides have an understanding of what the opponent doesn’t have, but also what it does.
Said Farley, “What I would say about Iowa State, looking at their program, they are a deeper program than they’ve ever been.
“The words I’ve been using in conversation is — they’re a Big 12 team. They’ve always been a Big 12 team, but they have Big 12 players now. They have the depth of the Big 12.
“I think that’s what has really made the difference viewing them now as an opponent. The depth is much stronger and the talent they have on the field is much better than maybe it was in the past.”
Iowa State’s players and coaches also recall the 2011 meeting at Jack Trice, where the Cyclones needed a late rally to beat UNI, 20-19.
Said Rhoads, “That game was a dogfight and we expect this one to be a dogfight.”
Added running back Jeff Woody. “(The Panthers) are gritty. That is probably the best word I can use to describe them because they are undermanned because of scholarships. But that doesn’t mean they are undermanned in talent. They are athletic, they are fast, they play all sorts of games ... on the defensive lines. They will slant, twist, blitz, bring two guys off one side — all sorts of stuff to try to confuse you.”
When: Saturday, 7 p.m.
Where: Jack Trice Stadium (Ames)
TV: Mediacom (798 HD, 165 SD)
Radio: KXEL (1540 AM), KCNZ (1650 AM)
Series: Iowa State leads, 20-4-3.
Last meeting: ISU had to score twice in the final five minutes to pull out a 20-19 victory in Ames in 2011.
What to watch: With new offensive line coach Chris Klenakis on board, the Cyclones want to run more downhill in 2013. Klenakis is one of the innovators of the “pistol offense” run by Colin Kaepernick at Nevada. Who will be getting the bulk of the handoffs from quarterback Sam Richardson is a mystery. James White is listed as the starter, but Shontrelle Johnson, Jeff Woody, junior college transfer Aaron Wimberly and DeVondrick Nealy are all expected to be utilized by Iowa State. As for UNI, the Cyclones are fully aware the Panthers have plenty of offensive weapons. In 2011, David Johnson burned ISU late on a wheel route he took 80 yards to paydirt to give the Panthers a 19-14 lead with under five minutes left in the game. ISU also expects Sawyer Kollmorgen to be improved after his FCS Freshmen of the Year debut season. This will most likely be a low-scoring game. ISU ranked ninth in both scoring offense and total offense in the Big 12 in 2012, while the Cyclone defense has gone 20 games holding opponents to 40 or fewer points, the best active streak in the Big 12, which had seven teams average 35.7 ppg or more last year.
Key matchup: UNI’s offensive line vs. ISU’s defensive line. It’s largely a battle of untested units. Jack Rummels and Dan Kruger are returning veterans on the Panthers’ offense line, while starting right tackle Ryan Bingaman split time between tight end and the offensive line last year, and left guard Kirk Harris played in three games as a reserve. Starting center Robert Rathje, a redshirt freshman, will be making his UNI debut. ... Defensive end Willie Scott is the only returning starter on the Cyclones’ defensive line. ISU’s d-line has size. Tackle David Irving is 6-foot-7, nose guard Brandon Jensen is 6-5, and right end Cory Morrissey is 6-4. The length of those three could cause issues for UNI’s Kollmorgen and his passing lanes.
UNI coach Mark Farley: “We’re looking forward to it. Anytime you play Iowa, Iowa State, an in-state team, I think it creates excitement, particularly for our players being we have 67 from the state of Iowa here. It is an important thing when you look at it through the eyes of the players.”
Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads: “Our players have a huge amount of respect for the Northern Iowa football program, and we have their focus as we go through this week.”
Did you know? Connections, connections. ISU offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham started at quarterback for an Earle Bruce-coached UNI team in 1988. UNI receivers coach Todd Blythe is the ISU career leader in receiving yards (3,096), receptions (176) and touchdown receptions (31).
– Compiled by Sports Writer Jim Nelson