Daunting task awaits UNI football team

Next 4 opponents ranked in the top 8 nationally

Northern Iowa running back J’Veyon Browning pulls away from Western Illinois defensive back David Griffith during the fourth quarter of last Saturday’s game at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls. UNI needs to establish a better running game if he want to have success this Saturday at South Dakota State. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Northern Iowa running back J’Veyon Browning pulls away from Western Illinois defensive back David Griffith during the fourth quarter of last Saturday’s game at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls. UNI needs to establish a better running game if he want to have success this Saturday at South Dakota State. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

CEDAR FALLS — And so it has begun.

Northern Iowa begins its daunting four-game stretch against Missouri Valley Football Conference teams ranked inside the top 8 of the Coaches Poll. The four-game journey starts Saturday in Brookings, S.D., when the Panthers (2-3, 1-1) take on seventh-ranked South Dakota State (4-1, 1-1).

After a gut-wrenching loss at home last week to Western Illinois, the Panthers are openly frustrated with how things have gone. Head coach Mark Farley said he expects his players to be frustrated and/or mad about last week’s loss, but added they cannot afford to have it affect their preparation.

Saturday’s opponent brought back much of what made them 2016 MVFC co-champions. Offensively, the Jackrabbits are led by a trio of all-conference performers — dual-threat quarterback Taryn Christion and his two predominant pass-catchers, Tyler Wieneke and Dallas Goedert.

On paper, this appears to be the Panthers’ stiffest challenge yet defensively. SDSU’s offense ranks high in many categories, including first in FCS third-down conversion rate thanks in large part to a wide receiver-tight end duo who appear poised to be playing on Sundays a year from now.

“Their quarterback is excellent,” Farley said. “Those two (Wieneke and Goedert) are excellent because they have great height and great speed and they catch everything close. One will be on the left side, one will be on the right side, so they’ll balance the field that way. Then, when you do cover them, the quarterback can run. That’s what makes it really dynamic, because of the quarterback’s ability to get out of trouble.”

The Panthers could attempt to take a page out of Youngstown State’s game plan. The eighth-ranked Penguins beat SDSU with an emphasis on ball control. YSU possessed the football for 45 of the 60 minutes in their Week 4 win, allowing the Jackrabbits to run only 37 plays.

That’s easier said than done for UNI, however. The Panthers rank 111th out of 128 FCS teams in rushing yards. UNI has shown an ability to use a short passing game to augment its run-game struggles.

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After what looked like an emphasis to push the ball downfield with their passing game a week ago, Farley hinted this week changes could be on the horizon in play-calling.

“We’ll have to look at personnel in a couple spots,” he said. “There’s a lot of things we have going on right now.

“What can I speak to? We need to make sure that the calls (that are) made ... that we can get the most out of everybody on the football field. We have to play to (the player’s) ability and we have to play to where they’re at in their game right now. We have to stay in that package. What they can handle and what they can play.”

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