Iowa continues its month of home games Saturday with a battle against in-state rival Northern Iowa. The Hawkeyes are 2-0 and starting to get some votes in the AP poll. They aren’t in the Top 25 yet, but they’d be No. 32 if you count far enough down the list. Game time is 6:30 p.m. CT (TV: Big Ten Network).
Northern Iowa is 0-1, having lost its opener to Montana 26-23 and taking an early bye week last weekend. They struggled early on offense — something Iowa fans certainly know about — gaining only 47 yards in the first half. This might be a bit of an ugly slugfest, too.
Here are five things I’d like to see from Iowa this weekend:
1. Nate Stanley getting more comfortable in the passing game
Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley was supposed to be the most NFL-ready passer in the Big Ten this season, but we haven’t seen that so far. Iowa’s offense has really struggled through the first two games, especially early. Two ugly first halves have us concerned.
Stanley isn’t totally to blame, but he is the quarterback, so the finger-pointing starts there when an offense struggles. Sure, there’s been a few injuries to skill-position guys, but Stanley needs to be more accurate and he needs to do a better job of finding the open receiver during his progressions. There are big games ahead where Stanley needs to win them on his own, so it would be nice to see some improvement on Saturday.
2. The defense continues to control games from start to finish
Iowa’s defense has been incredibly good so far, allowing just 10 points through two games and keeping long drives to a minimum. Iowa’s starting defense has allowed only one drive longer than 48 yards all season, and that came on Iowa State’s first drive last week that ended in a field goal. That only touchdown allowed came against the reserves on Northern Illinois’ last possession, when Iowa already had a 33-0 lead.
Basically, Iowa’s defense has been as close to perfect as you can get. The defensive line has been especially impressive and there are no gaping holes for the moment. Another big performance would be nice before Big Ten play starts.
3. Running backs start to make their presence felt
It hasn’t helped that Ivory Kelly-Martin got banged up with an ankle injury in the opener and then missed last week’s Iowa State game. Still, that’s no excuse for a quiet running game so far, because both Toren Young and Mehki Stewart have the talent to make big plays.
They’ve done it already, just not enough. Young has 152 yards on 29 carries, good for a respectable 5.2-yard average. Stewart has a pedestrian 2.8-yard average so far (23 carries for 65 yards), but he did cap last Saturday’s win with a big touchdown run. Maybe that’s enough to get him going too. Kelly-Martin is still day-to-day for Saturday’s game, so it’ll be interesting to see if they hold him out another week so he could be closer to 100 percent for the much-more-important Wisconsin game on Sept. 22.
4. Special teams start to make a difference
There haven’t been a lot of chances yet — just one kick return and six punt returns in two games — so I’m not bringing this up to be critical, just to point out that it’s time for the return team to start flipping the field a little bit. That hasn’t happened yet.
Many times, close games swing on a long punt or kickoff return and that’s a formula that’s made a difference for the Hawkeyes in the past. It’d be nice to see somebody break one.
5. Stay healthy for the Wisconsin game
It gets very serious next week with the huge Big Ten West showdown against No. 6 Wisconsin in Iowa City. If the Hawkeyes want to compete for a division title, this game is a must-win, especially at home.
It would be nice to go into that game as healthy as possible. The Hawks are dinged up a big now, so it’ll be interesting to see if Kirk Ferentz and the coaches hold out a few guys who are hobbling to save them for Wisconsin.