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CEDAR FALLS — They’ve got smart kids at Northern Iowa. They know what’s going on.
The Panthers have a 2-4 record, with five games remaining. If they want to make the FCS playoffs, it’s clear what needs to be done.
“Obviously you can’t be perfect every single play. You’re going to make mistakes in games, you’re going to make plays,” said UNI linebacker Duncan Ferch. “But, yeah, record wise, we have to be perfect from here on out.”
That pursuit of perfection begins Saturday afternoon with a home game against Missouri State (3-3). Kickoff at the UNI-Dome is 1 p.m.
There is a precedent for winning out. It was set last season.
Northern Iowa lost four of its first six games in 2015, closed out the regular season with five straight wins and made the playoffs. It won its first two postseason games, too, before falling to national champ North Dakota State.
Perhaps that’s why Coach Mark Farley had a cheshire-cat smile on his face when it was pointed out Monday during UNI’s weekly media luncheon that he seemed confident his club was going to go on a similar run.
“Do I seem confident?” Farley asked.
He sort of did.
“No excuses,” the coach said. “I will say we have to take the players we have and twist them a little more and help turn them and catch some momentum. Just like every other year the past few years. You catch fire, you get where you belong. Right now, we haven’t turned that thing.
“We just have to get better at some positions. They’re playing hard. I’m telling you, they’re playing frickin’ hard. That’s what I want them to do. Now we’ve got to get a little smarter and play better at some positions.”
UNI has lost its four games by a total of 17 points. Last Saturday’s 14-10 loss at Youngstown State fit the pattern of those four losses.
A lot of good play but just not quite enough. Youngstown State rallied from a 10-0 halftime hole and scored the winning touchdown with under a minute left.
“I thought we really played hard,” Farley said. “I thought Youngstown was a really excellent football team, a really good football team. A legitimate top-10 football team ... I thought we played hard. We didn’t play smart at times. We had our chances. There are things we can definitely use, and we must use them, because we are out of space right now.
“We have to be perfect on the way out. We have to win out. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that ... I think the magic number for our schedule is seven (wins). I think that’s evident to everybody, (it's) no surprise.”
Western Illinois of the Missouri Valley Conference made the playoffs last season with a 6-5 record, so UNI theoretically might have a smidge of leeway. But there’s no use in using it, if you don’t have to.
The remaining schedule includes NDSU and South Dakota State, which upset the top-ranked Bison last Saturday. Western Illinois also is a ranked foe remaining.
Farley knows one thing for sure. UNI’s offense must improve.
The Panthers rank dead last in the league in total offense and are second to last in scoring. The passing game has not taken any foot, which was why Farley was asked if perhaps sophomore Eli Dunne might get more snaps at quarterback this week.
Dunne replaced starter Aaron Bailey for a series in the second half and was in the game in the dying seconds when UNI needed to drive the field. The Panthers got inside midfield but had a Hail Mary fall incomplete, though Farley said tape showed his team should have gotten one more Hail Mary attempt.
The clock ran out but still had one second left on it at the incompletion. That’s inconsequential now.
“Actually, I think that was a great measuring stick because of the team we played,” Farley said. “I looked at Youngstown because I know the talent. I know the size of those guys and what it takes to be a great football team. That’s the standard we’re trying to play towards. When I looked at the support cast, not just the quarterback, but everybody, and I saw how head to head we played against every position.
“Whether it was our DBs against their receivers, or our receivers against their DBs, their two D-ends against our two offensive tackles, from our D-ends to their defensive tackles, our two tackles against their big offensive linemen. That was one of those teams that had enough people to where you could really look at your personnel and say ‘Are we good enough at these places? What places do we still need to fix?’”
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