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CEDAR FALLS — This isn’t do or die for the Northern Iowa Panthers. But it feels as if it’s headed in that direction.
An unexpected loss last week at South Dakota makes UNI 2-3 overall as it prepares for Saturday night’s game at Youngston State.
The Panthers are ranked 21st, Youngstown State 14th. This is a tough assignment against one of FCS’s top defenses.
With games still on tap against North Dakota State and South Dakota State, the margin of error for UNI if it wants to eventually make the FCS playoffs is slimming. A win here would be huge.
Kickoff in Ohio is 6 p.m.
“Right now, it’s about resiliency,” said UNI center Robert Rathje. “That’s been our MO for the past two seasons. We’ve got to be resilient and really just fight out of the hole we’ve dug ourselves in. Really, right now, it’s an all-or-nothing situation, so we’ve got to make sure we give it our all every down, every play.”
Northern Iowa picked up a huge season-opening win at Iowa State but has lost three of its last four games by a total of 13 points. Coach Mark Farley is frustrated by his team’s inability to finish.
It’s not just finishing, either. UNI has not scored a third-quarter touchdown this season.
“I’ve got to find a way to get more out of them,” Farley said. “Anytime we win, it’s because we play beyond our capabilities. We’re not playing beyond our capabilities, for whatever reason. We have to find a way to get more out of each player at every position, not just one or two ... We’ve got to play the game at our standards. We’re not even close to our standards.”
Youngstown State (4-1) is coached by former Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini, who always has been known as a defensive specialist. These Penguins lead the Missouri Valley Conference in fewest points allowed and total defense.
They held Illinois State without a touchdown in a 20-6 win last weekend. Avery Moss (a Nebraska transfer) and Derek Rivers (an all-American in 2015) will be a handful for UNI at the defensive end position.
“When you watch them on film, their two defensive ends are probably what people talk about a lot. Those two guys are very destructive,” Farley said. “They’re (virtually) all seniors, I think there are eight seniors that line up on defense for them ... Extremely good defense.”
“Definitely the Youngstown defense is going to come to play,” said UNI runing back Michael Malloy. “Having it be a league game, we feel like everyone is out to beat us. We get scheduled for team’s homecoming, everything. We’re always going to get the best shot from opponents. A defense that is this good is definitely going to give us a challenge. But we’re going to prepare like we need to prepare and do our best against it.”
Farley was asked earlier this week if there was consideration to get Eli Dunne some snaps at quarterback, considering UNI’s passing game under Aaron Bailey (more of a dual-threat) has been inconsistent. His response was that “everything is on the table.”
“There are a lot of things going on out there,” he said. “A lot of positives, a lot of good things going on out there. We play well, then we do so many foolish things sometimes. Whether it’s inexperience or not being coached well, however you want to (say) it, it’s happening, so it needs to be fixed.
“We have been in position to win. We’ve been there. Now we’ve got to get the win ...It’s a game of momentum, as it’s always been. This is a heck of a test for us at a critical time. (Youngstown State) is a very good football team, one of the best football teams in I-AA, I promise you that.”
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