CEDAR FALLS — On paper No. 20 Northern Iowa is the definitive favorite in its first-round playoff game Saturday at 4 p.m. (ESPN3) against Monmouth.
The Panthers (7-4, 6-2 MVFC) survived a brutal schedule — the toughest FCS schedule in the country per Sagarin — and appear positioned to get a first-round win against the Hawks (9-2, 4-1 Big South), who are making their first FCS Playoff appearance in the program’s 25-year history.
Unfortunately for UNI, the games are not played on paper and Monmouth brings a dynamic duo of playmakers to the UNI-Dome turf in quarterback Kenji Baha and running back Pete Guerriero.
“The quarterback (jumped off the film). The running back jumped off the film,” UNI head coach Mark Farley said. “I think the running back really runs hard. He’s explosive on special teams and he’s explosive as a tailback – he makes people miss.”
Monmouth gets it done offensively with a balanced attack. Baha is the wrinkle in the offense as he’s a more than capable runner who can extend plays and gain yards on designed quarterback runs.
“That’ll be the challenge (for the defense), you’ve got a mobile quarterback and a really good scheme,” Farley said. “Their scheme is well thought out and causes some problems as far as trying to make sure you have enough guys for the pass and enough guys in your front to fit the run.”
Offensively the Panthers will be challenged by a deceptive 3-4 Monmouth defense that’s led by their secondary. Specifically, preseason second-team All-American safety Mike Basile, who was recently awarded the Big South’s co-defensive player of the year award after totaling 113 tackles, 9.5 for loss.
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“They’re going to have four linebackers,” Farley said. “They’ll get in the (46) bear front and do that type of stuff to try and create some pressure and deception. They’re very good at the deceptive part of their defense and causing problems that way.”
What UNI’s offense is able to do against the Hawks’ deceptive fronts could be the biggest key to advancing. Farley told The Gazette that quarterback Eli Dunne, offensive guard Bryce Sweeney and safety A.J. Allen — who each missed last week’s regular season finale with injuries — will be available against Monmouth. The return of Dunne and Sweeney, two upperclassmen, should be an important factor in deciphering the Hawks’ disguised fronts. However, according to Farley, the offense’s ability to conduct long, time-consuming drives is what’s been most effective during their strong regular-season ending run that featured five wins in their last six games.
“The things that are standing out on offense the past six weeks are our ability to move the football and have sustained drives,” Farley said. “When you’re driving the clock out in the third quarter for eight minutes and putting the game away in the fourth quarter with a seven, eight-minute drive that’s very good offense. Being able to drive the field and be penalty-free and be able to own the clock and get the points, so those things are the things we need to continue to do.”