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UNI strives to become special on special teams during off week

Panthers also target building depth, especially on offensive line

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CEDAR FALLS — Three games in, and the Northern Iowa Panthers already have their bye week.

You’d think that wouldn’t be a good thing, especially coming off a pair of tough losses. Seems like you’d want to get back out there and turn this baby around.

But UNI Coach Mark Farley said Monday this is the perfect week not to have a game.

“It’s huge,” Farley said. “We need to mature some of the younger players we’ve played. Then we need to make an adjustment with our offensive line to create some depth. We need to create some depth at a couple other positions, too. We’ve had a lot of injuries.”

Northern Iowa (1-2) played the latter parts of last Saturday night’s 34-32 loss at Eastern Washington without starting cornerbacks Charles Brown and Jamison Whiting. Ezra Szczyrbak got his first career start at left guard but was injured in the first quarter.

Bryce Sweeney started 13 games at left tackle last season but suffered a season-ending injury in fall practice. The Panthers offense was unable to convert in the red zone in a 20-14, Week 2 loss to Montana and managed only two field goals in the second half against EWU.

“We’ve got an issue there (on the offensive line) that we’ve got to secure this week,” Farley said.

Eastern Washington won the game, of course, on a fake field goal touchdown in the final minute. That brings up another UNI issue, one that the coach believes is most pertinent.

Special teams all around have not been special in the first quarter of the season. UNI allowed a punt return for touchdown against Montana and had the second-half kickoff returned for score against EWU.

That completely swung the momentum of the game. A 24-7 Northern Iowa halftime lead immediately was shrunk.

“It flipped the game, they always do,” Farley said. “It takes awhile to recover from a special teams touchdown. That momentum swings the game. They’re gut wrenching on the defense, in particular. You’ve given up seven points, and you haven’t even been given the chance to get on the field.”

Kicking inefficiencies also have surfaced. Austin Errthum won the job out of camp but went 1-for-4 in field goals and was replaced by Matt Easley.

He’s 3-for-5, with both missed coming last Saturday.

“The biggest thing that we’ve got going on is poor special teams play,” Farley said. “That’s probably the biggest thing that we’ve got to correct this week in this open week. We’ll make some personnel changes, do a lot of different things. We’ll move some people around offensively, defensively and on special teams. Then we’ll work it out from there. That’s where I’m at.

“We’ve left 36 points on the field in three games, with missed field and giving up two touchdowns on returns. If you look at those 36 points left on the field, that’s the difference in a lot of football games.”

Northern Iowa’s next game is Oct. 1 at home against Southern Illinois. Missouri Valley Conference play then continues with back-to-back roadies to South Dakota and Youngstown State.

“Those were the three warmup games,” Farley said. “Now we’re getting into the meat of the schedule.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.com

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