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Five things to watch in Saturday’s opener

[ 2 ] August 31, 2010 |

Iowa City, Ia. — Two blocked field goals altered the course of Iowa’s 2009 football season.

Otherwise, the Hawkeyes would have lost their opener against Northern Iowa, souring what became a run to the Orange Bowl.

“I think the moral of the story is there are just not a lot of easy games,” coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday. “And if you go into a game thinking it’s going to be anything less than competitive, you’re going to suffer for that.”

The Hawkeyes survived against the Panthers, and that 17-16 win propelled them to an 11-2 record.

On Saturday, ninth-ranked Iowa begins its quest for a return to the Bowl Championship Series by hosting Eastern Illinois.

It’s unlikely the Hawkeyes’ 2010 debut will be as dramatic, but here are five key developments fans should keep an eye on:

1. The replacements

Last spring’s NFL draft marked the fifth time since 2003 that at least four Hawkeyes were selected.

The departure of six drafted players from last season’s seventh-ranked squad left a void on the offensive line and at linebacker, but Iowa has a history of picking up the slack — averaging 9.5 wins in the four seasons after losing so much talent.

“There are a lot of things we are concerned about right now,” Ferentz said. “A lot of new players out there at a lot of positions. You’re just never quite sure what’s going to happen and how things are going to materialize.”

Adam Gettis and Markus Zusevics will step in on an offensive line that lost Bryan Bulaga and Kyle Calloway.

Tyler Nielsen and Jeff Tarpinian will replace linebackers Pat Angerer and A.J. Edds.

A broken hand sidelined Tarpinian during summer camp, but he’s expected to practice this week.

“He has a splint and a padding over the top of it,” Ferentz said. “So it limits him a little bit.”

2. Kick returners

Colin Sandeman is listed as Iowa’s primary punt returner, but receiver Marvin McNutt may get a chance to shine on special teams.

“Last year, (coaches) would try to get me to catch some out there,” McNutt said. “They told me it’s something they’re looking at, to see if I can.”

The Hawkeyes ranked 78th out of 120 NCAA Division I programs in punt returns last fall, averaging 7.5 yards per attempt.

They were a respectable 38th in kickoff returns, averaging 22.95 yards.

Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, who scored Iowa’s only kick return touchdown last season, will share those duties with Keenan Davis.

3. Killer instinct

The Hawkeyes held off Northern Iowa’s upset bid, but set the tone for a season full of narrow escapes.

They finished with an average point differential of 7.8 more than their opponents — lowest among the 21 major-college teams that won at least 10 games.

“Maybe we took that (Northern Iowa) game for granted,” Zusevics said. “We’re a little more focused about it this year.”

The Panthers were fueled by in-state pride. Eastern Illinois, also known as the Panthers, was hammered 52-3 by Penn State on Oct. 10.

“It turns out, we played a team that was very good and they were ready to play,” Ferentz said of Northern Iowa. “I don’t think we looked great.”

4. Kickers

Daniel Murray was named to the Lou Groza Award watch list — given to the nation’s top kicker — but he’s struggling to keep his starting spot.

The senior from Iowa City is listed on the depth chart alongside Trent Mossbrucker.

“He hasn’t told us anything,” Murray said of Ferentz’s decision. “So we’re just going to go out every day and keep plugging.”

Murray was 19-of-26 on field goals as a junior, but finds himself at the center of a protracted position battle.

“We are going to go through the week and make a decision,” Ferentz said. “It’s been pretty close.”

Mike Meyer, a freshman from Dubuque Wahlert, is expected to handle kickoffs.

5. Stanzi’s decision-making

Senior quarterback Ricky Stanzi owns an 18-4 record as a starter, but spends much of his time with the media talking about interceptions.

Stanzi has thrown a pass in 25 games for Iowa — the exact number of passes he’s had picked off.

“I don’t know what feels worse than an interception,” Stanzi said Tuesday. “Probably someone burning an American flag would hurt a little more inside … that’s all I can think of.”

Hawkeye fans will wince if Stanzi continues to turn the ball over.

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football

About Andrew Logue: Andrew has been with the Des Moines Register for 19 years, covering everything from preps to Hawkeye and Cyclone sports, as well as the Drake Relays. View author profile.

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