CHICAGO – In most ways, this is just like any other season opener.
The Iowa Hawkeyes and Northern Illinois Huskies finally get to hit someone wearing different color jerseys than their own.
And yet, it is different.
For the second time, Iowa and NIU start the season at Soldier Field, adding another level of excitement to an already pumped-up day.
Kickoff is set for 2:32 p.m. along the shores of Lake Michigan.
“I’m ready to go,” said Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg. “We’ve had three weeks of good camp.”
These teams also met at Soldier Field in 2007, with the Hawkeyes taking a 16-3 victory. This experience, though, is new to the players on both sides.
“I’m very excited. It’s like a once in a lifetime opportunity,” said Iowa strong safety Nico Law. “Words cannot describe.”
“We all grew up watching NFL games and dreaming of playing in the NFL. Getting to play in a venue like that is very special,” Hawkeyes receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley said.
Today’s matchup pits the Hawkeyes against the program that has the longest winning streak in the FBS. The Huskies won their final nine games last season, including the Mid-American Conference championship and the GoDaddy.com Bowl. NIU’s last loss came Oct. 1, 2011, to Central Michigan, and that was by just a touchdown, 48-41.
The Huskies return a great nucleus from that team, including 10 starters on defense. On offense, though, they have eight new starters.
“To see those give guys together for the first time, this is going to be a great deal,” Huskies coach Dave Doeren said of his offensive line. “Just watching Iowa play, their defensive line in my opinion is one of the best fundamentally, best coached, most fundamentally sound across the board.”
Doeren knows that by the numbers, the Hawkeyes should have his team’s number.
Iowa is 7-0 against NIU, and 5-0 against the MAC in season openers. The Hawkeyes have won their last 11 openers by an average of 31 points.
“We know we’re a pretty good team,” Doeren said. “How good are we? We’re about to find out.”
That is a question Iowa also needs to answer.
The Hawkeyes come into the game with an inexperienced defensive line and offensive line. The running back situation seems to change daily.
While Vandenberg is back for his second season as the starter, he has a receiving corps that mostly watched Marvin McNutt catch passes last season.
“They’re very talented. Very well coached,” Vandenberg said. “They’ve got a lot of experience. You’ve got to play well to beat them. They don’t give up a lot of big stuff. They play their defense and they do it well.”
“We have to bring our ‘A’ game if we want to beat them,” said Martin-Manley, one of the young receivers who will be on the other end of Vandenberg’s passes.
Doeren is impressed by C.J. Fiedorowicz, who hopes to get Iowa’s tight ends back into the offense this season. Normally a strong position in the program, the tight ends had an unusually quiet year in 2011.
“I do think they have one of the best receiving tight ends in college football in Fiederowicz. So that’ll be a challenge for us,” Doeren said.
Both teams would like to make the first move in front of the Soldier Field crowd. If the promised rain from the remnants of Hurricane Isaac shows up during the game, a fast start will be even more important.
“I don’t know if we need a statement as much as we need to be in the game,” Doeren said. “I don’t want to look up and see 21-0. I think if we can play with them and not beat ourselves, I think that’s a huge key.”
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, just like his players, is ready to get on the field and get the season started.
“Eager and uncertain. That’s a good way to put it,” he said. “It’s like that every season. You’re always anxious. I think that’s probably where we’re at right now. I’m sure Northern feels the same way.”