Iowa State hosts UNI in crucial opener
AMES, Iowa (AP) Hardly anyone outside of the state will pay much attention to the Northern Iowa-Iowa State game.
Yet it's an opener with big ramifications for both programs.
Cyclones coach Paul Rhoads enters his seventh season in Ames under great scrutiny after back-to-back 3-9 and 2-10 seasons; including two straight defeats to FCS opponents on opening day.
A third such loss - on a night when the Cyclones will host their largest crowd in school history - could doom Rhoads' tenure at Iowa State.
Northern Iowa opens 2015 ranked 10th in the FCS and eager to make a long playoff push.
Plus, the Panthers know they can win at Jack Trice Stadium. They did it two years ago - and in 2007 as well.
''Northern Iowa is a program that, at the FCS level, reloads,'' Rhoads said. ''They've reloaded again, with great talent across the board.''
Here are some things to consider Saturday as Iowa State welcomes the Panthers to their newly-expanded stadium, now the third-largest in the Big 12:
SAM'S THE MAN: Iowa State has high hopes for its passing game in 2015. Senior quarterback Sam Richardson is entering his third season as a starter, and he's got more help on the outside than ever before. D'Vario Montgomery, Allen Lazard and a healthy Quenton Bundrage will give the Cyclones their best receiving trio in a long time, and fellow wideout Dondre Daley has come after a strong fall camp. ''They've continued to amaze me, honestly,'' Richardson said. ''We're excited to get out there and start throwing it around.''
PANTHER QB QUESTIONS: No one outside of Cedar Falls seems to know who'll start at quarterback for the Panthers. Northern Iowa's depth chart for Iowa State features four QBs, led by freshman Eli Dunne and senior Sawyer Kollmorgen. Dunne, who redshirted a year ago, threw 75 TD passes while at Grinnell High (Iowa). Kollmorgen struggled in 2014, completing just 52 percent of his passes. ''If the competition has gone this long, all of them are playing extremely well in camp and making it very hard on the head coach,'' Rhoads said.
RUNNING ON EMPTY: Iowa State is still looking for a starting running back heading into 2015. The Cyclones stuck sophomore Tyler Brown in the starting spot, but in reality Brown and freshmen Mike Warren and Joshua Thomas will audition for the job against the Panthers. The trio has a combined 109 career rushing yards - all from Brown.
TUCKER POWER: Saturday's game will mark the long-awaited debut of Iowa State nose tackle Demond Tucker. The 6-foot, 296-pound junior college transfer was voted the best defensive player in the country at the two-year level in 2013, and he made an immediate impression with a coaching staff eager for help on the interior.
NEW DIGS: Iowa State spent $60 million renovating their south end zone in the offseason. The Cyclones installed a massive club space and 3,000 new seats which, combined with additional seating in the grandstand, brought Jack Trice Stadium's capacity to 61,500. The work, along with the fact that Panthers fans need to drive just 90 minutes to reach Ames, helped Iowa State sell out for the opener. The Cyclones will also likely outdraw their heated rivals, Iowa, which has sold just under 58,000 tickets as of Wednesday.
Follow Luke Meredith on Twitter at www.twitter.com/LukeMeredithAP and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/LukeMeredithAP