After having more trouble than expected in the season opener against Miami University, Iowa's defense redeemed itself with a dominating performance against in-state rival Iowa State last week.
The 13th-ranked Hawkeyes moved to 2-0 behind a defense that limited the Cyclones to 126 yards on the ground, 291 total yards and three points. The offense also contributed its share in the 42-3 victory that snapped a two-game home losing streak in the annual series.
The win over Iowa State certainly was convincing, but strange as it sounds, the Cyclones probably aren't at the level of the Hawkeyes' FCS opponent this week. Five-time defending national champion North Dakota State visits Iowa City on Saturday (noon, ESPN2) for what promises to be Iowa's sternest test on the non-conference schedule.
"They're the best team we've faced thus far," Iowa running back LeShun Daniels said Tuesday.
North Dakota State (2-0) has won its last five games against FBS opponents and has an 8-3 record against schools at the top level of college football. The Bison, coached by Iowa native Chris Klieman, have defeated two FCS opponents in overtime to start this season, putting up 50 points against Eastern Washington last week.
"When we talk about North Dakota State, they take a backseat to no one," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "They're accustomed to winning. They know what it takes and they've got good players who are well coached.
"I'll go out on a limb and predict this will be a really strong team, a really tough opponent for us."
Iowa enters its final non-conference matchup with a 14-game regular-season winning streak and a nine-game home win streak. The Hawkeyes' last home loss was at the end of the 2014 season.
Quarterback C.J. Beathard has won all nine of his starts in Kinnick Stadium, but Beathard and the Hawkeyes know better than to underestimate the invading Bison. North Dakota State has an astounding 20-0 record in the playoffs the past five years and is expected to bring at least 10,000 fans to 70,585-seat Kinnick.
"Their fans are going to be pumped," Iowa cornerback Desmond King said. "They're playing against the Iowa Hawkeyes. Our fans vs. their fans. That's what it's going to be."
Klieman grew up a Hawkeyes fan in Waterloo, Iowa, and was Northern Iowa's defensive coordinator in 2009 when the Panthers nearly pulled off an upset in Iowa City. He's now in his third season as North Dakota State's head coach after three years as an assistant.
The Bison, who sent quarterback Carson Wentz to the Philadelphia Eagles this year as the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft, are prepared for more of a physical challenge than they face in FCS.
"In the time I've been here, this is the most complete team the Bison will have faced," Klieman said. "They come at you like, 'We are going to line up and we are going to run right at you and we are going to knock you off the football. Can you hold up?' The first two opponents they've played haven't held up."
Iowa played well against Iowa State after giving up 424 yards to Miami University in a 45-21 opening win.
Beathard passed for 235 yards and three touchdowns against the Cyclones last week and has yet to throw an interception this year. Iowa's top two running backs, Daniels and Akrum Wadley, are splitting carries and have combined for 365 of the team's 410 yards and six rushing touchdowns in the first two games.
The defensive difference-maker from Week 1 to Week 2 could well have been Josey Jewell. The middle linebacker was ejected early in the first quarter of the opener because of a targeting penalty but came back to lead the team with nine tackles and was all over the field.
"When he's in there, we play a lot better," Ferentz said. "He adds a lot to our tempo, helps us be a little more active out there."
The defensive line was missing injured end Parker Hesse, who's expected back this week, but defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson played a key role in the trenches. He had one of his better games with seven tackles and a sack, but he wasn't satisfied because the defensive gave up three points.
"I prefer it to be none," he said. "But you won't ever play a perfect game."
Jewell compared North Dakota State to a Big Ten opponent. The Bison's offense, with sophomore Easton Stick taking over at quarterback for Wentz, has displayed balanced in the first two games, rushing for a 255-yard average and passing for 225.5.
"We're going to have to be ready for smash-mouth football," Jewell said.