IOWA CITY — Nick Easley likes his football when there is something a little more than a win on the line.
Whether it’s some metal and wood crafted into a trophy as it was a week ago against Iowa State or just the bragging rights that belong to the winner of Saturday night’s Iowa-Northern Iowa game, the Hawkeye receiver sees it as a meaningful opportunity.
“When you know a few players on the other side of the field, it brings a little extra to it,’’ Easley said. “There will be a lot of Iowa guys on the field on both sides, guys I’ve competed against or played on teams with before. We understand what this game means to them and UNI is no slouch.’’
Sandwiched between the Cyclones and next week’s Big Ten opener against defending West Division champ Wisconsin, the 6:30 p.m. match-up at Kinnick Stadium has the makings of a trap game for the Hawkeyes.
Easley said that won’t happen.
Iowa players have been reminded repeatedly this week about how the Panthers have played the Hawkeyes on even terms into the fourth quarter in each of their last three visits to Kinnick Stadium.
They’ve also been reminded about Iowa’s last experience against a team from the Missouri Valley Conference, a 23-21 loss to North Dakota State in the third game of the season two years ago.
“If we’re not ready to go, they are perfectly capable of making it tough on us,’’ Easley said. “They have good players and they play in the toughest FCS conference in the country. We’re not in a position to overlook anybody.’’
Especially not an opponent that trailed Iowa 24-23 with 12 minutes, 42 seconds left in the fourth quarter of a 31-23 game in 2014, five years after forcing the Hawkeyes to block two field goal attempts in the final seconds to hold onto a 17-16 win.
The 2012 game wasn’t a picnic for Iowa, either, as UNI was within 24-16 in the fourth quarter before the Hawkeyes secured a 27-16 win.
“Those are the types of games they play against Iowa,’’ Easley said. “We don’t know a lot about this UNI team, they’ve only played one game, but we do know the type of intensity they’ll bring and how ready they will be to play.’’
That is among the reasons Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz likes the idea of playing Northern Iowa and other top-level FCS programs on an occasional basis.
Now allowed by the Big Ten to schedule FCS opponents in years when hosting only four league opponents, Iowa will open its 2020 schedule with a game against UNI and has games scheduled in 2022 against South Dakota State and 2024 against Illinois State.
“I’m not an expert on FCS football, but it seems like that has really grown into a tough, competitive league,’’ Ferentz said. “You think about the teams they have to play week in and week out and what (UNI has) done. They’ve played us, they’ve played Iowa State, they’ve played Wisconsin, when they go on the road, they’re tough.’’
Ferentz sees games against UNI, as well as those against Iowa State, as a chance to showcase something he believes makes college football in Iowa “unique.”
“It’s good for our state,’’ Ferentz said. “They relish the challenge. I think we’re in a really unique state of three million people and you’ve got two teams that won bowl games last year and you’ve got an FCS program that’s always in the playoffs. They’re always chasing the championship. I think it’s something we should all embrace.’’
From Ferentz’s perspective, that makes it worth any risk associated with playing an opponent capable of denying Iowa its sixth unbeaten nonconference record in his 20 years as the Hawkeyes’ coach.
Easley prefers to think about the potential reward that exists from competing against a quality opponent that will bring its best at Iowa.
“This is a game that will help us become a better team as we get ready for the Big Ten and that’s what these games are supposed to be about,’’ he said.
UNI is a bit of a mystery to Iowa this season.
With just one game on its resume this season and playing two very different halves in a 26-23 loss two weeks ago at Montana, a game UNI trailed 26-0 at the half, the Panthers will test the Hawkeyes’ in-game adjustment abilities.
“They’ve had a couple of weeks to prepare,’’ safety Amani Hooker said. “We don’t know exactly what they’ll run, just like Iowa State last week. We need to be ready for anything because we know they’ll be ready for us.’’