IOWA CITY — Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz knows enough about Northern Illinois to caution that it’s no one-man team. He also knows enough about the Huskies to understand that Jordan Lynch still drives them.
“Northern Illinois is much more than Jordan Lynch,” Ferentz said. “I’m not trying to minimize his role because that would be silly. They’ve won 34 games over the last three years. You don’t do that with just one player.”
Moments later, he warned: “Jordan Lynch, in a word, is a winner. … He’s a tough guy. He wins throwing. He wins running. He’s also a smart guy.”
NIU has plenty of questions as it tries to carry momentum from a 12-2 season and its historic Orange Bowl appearance into Saturday’s season opener at Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium.
Who will step up at wide receiver after key losses? How will running backs Keith Harris Jr. and Cameron Stingily perform in the absence of injured Akeem Daniels? Can the defensive line offer the same depth as last season with new players?
But there’s little to wonder about Lynch or what he means to the Huskies after last season, when he set an FBS quarterback rushing record with 1,815 yards and also passed for 3,138 yards.
The Mount Carmel graduate had a somewhat shaky first career start in last year’s opener against Iowa at Soldier Field. He rushed for 119 yards on 18 carries and helped the Huskies take a 17-9 third-quarter lead, but he completed only six of 16 passes for 54 yards and no touchdowns as the Hawkeyes won 18-17 on a late touchdown.
With 14 starts on his resume and a veteran line in front of him, Lynch hardly recognizes himself from that game.
“At times I didn’t make the throws and I didn’t make the reads,” he said. “I guess I was kind of nervous. Now that I have a year under my belt, I’ll be ready to go. Night-and-day difference. That was my first start. I feel way more comfortable running the offense. My leadership is better.”
The Huskies are banking on their offensive speed to offset Iowa’s physical defense, which returns seven starters, including a strong linebacker corps.
“One of the things we started to do, snapping the ball (with) over 28 seconds left on the play clock (in practices),” Lynch said. “We really pride ourselves on going fast. We’re ready to snap the ball before the ref even sets it. We can cause a lot of havoc if we keep our cool and play at our pace. The faster we go, the more basic the defense has to be.”
The tables have turned a bit since last season. The Hawkeyes hope to rebound from a disastrous 4-8 campaign, but with a new quarterback in Jake Rudock, skepticism abounds.
Starting off against NIU is hardly dipping a toe into the season’s waters. This is a cannonball for the Hawkeyes.
“It really doesn’t matter how we feel about it,” Ferentz said. “All of our players fully realize we played Northern last year, and we’re fully aware of how good Northern Illinois is. We’re playing an excellent opponent.”
The Huskies are 3-36 all-time against the Big Ten but have won two of the last six meetings with victories against Purdue in 2009 and at Minnesota in 2010 under former coach Jerry Kill. First-year NIU coach Rod Carey said a victory could help the Mid-American Conference make a statement.
“(The MAC has) a lot of those matches,” he said. “It’d be great for us all as a conference to come out as winners on Saturday.”
But last season’s loss to the Hawkeyes won’t serve as motivation Saturday, Lynch said.
“It’s not a revenge game,” he said. “It’s a whole new different team. Emotions get going, but we’re pretty good on this team. A lot of people stay focused. Our main goal is to get the victory. To get to a BCS bowl, we have to take it one game at a time.”
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