CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa football has dealt with more than its fair share of injuries on the offensive line this season.
Spencer Brown was lost for the season in week 6 to a knee injury. Cal Twait has been in and out of the lineup with various lower body injuries, and guard/tackle Bryce Sweeney missed last week’s game against Missouri State with an injury. Injuries have put the Panthers (6-4, 5-2) down three of their five opening day starters with the FCS Playoffs just around the corner.
Amid all the injuries, starting center Lee Carhart has been one of the two to hold up all season long. Carhart, a senior from Omaha, Neb., entered his senior season with only three starts to his name. Now in the final week of the regular season, there’s a serious case that can be made for Carhart being the MVP of UNI’s offense.
“There was a lot of ups and downs during the season but one of the things Coach (Mark) Farley really emphasized was that we needed to ‘survive the assault,’” Carhart said. “I think throughout the year we’ve had those ups and downs but the guys really rallied together, stuck together, and we knew that we were going to get through those tough times when we had all those losses. I don’t think for any moment we thought the season was done or anything like that, we just knew that we needed to get through the hard times.”
Spoken like any head coach would like to hear, UNI’s “man in the middle,” has received praise on multiple occasions this season Farley. Farley has lauded Carhart’s production and durability, proof that good things come to those who stick through difficult times. That’s something Carhart — who lost his 2015 season to an ACL tear — is familiar with.
“It’s been a blast. Coming off that injury in (2015) when you (injure) something like an ACL you never know what the future holds,” Carhart said. “Last year it was tough to lose the starting spot, but I always wanted to contribute in my own way. This year’s been a blast and this group of guys has really made it as much fun as it is.”
It hasn’t been all positives for Carhart and the Panthers this season. Those ups and downs he mentioned go beyond the team’s early season win-loss record and into protection struggles that plagued the Panthers in the early going.
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“Different blitzes — we’ve got to pick up on those and key on those — I think at the beginning of the year (offensive line coach/co-offensive coordinator) coach (Mike) Simmonds was telling us about the different blitzes that were coming and all the different indicators, but maybe we weren’t so keen on picking up on those,” Carhart said. “I think throughout the year it’s been able to be seen a lot better and the guys are calling it out, making the right calls and helping me out with the calls.”
Carhart says he’s proud of the offensive line group for being ready to play when they’ve had to go into “next man up” mode. He also called Simmonds “the perfect guy for the job” and complimented his ability to improve all the offensive linemen whether they’re freshmen or seniors.
A win over Indiana State (0-10, 0-7) at 4 p.m. Saturday would give UNI at least an at-large bid into the playoffs, but Carhart is taking a no-nonsense approach to what would be his last game as a Panther with a loss.
“Coach Farley has told us, this is the Missouri Valley and every team is going to give you their best shot,” Carhart said. “Every team is a very good team no matter what their record is. So we’ve got to treat Indiana State just like it’s (North Dakota State) week or (South Dakota State) week, or whomever in the Missouri Valley.”