CEDAR FALLS — Now comes the meat grinder.
Not that the first three weeks of the schedule were easy for the Northern Iowa Panthers. They weren’t.
But it’s time for Missouri Valley Football Conference play, and all you need to see how difficult that’s going to be are the rankings. The FCS Top 25 poll includes seven MVFC schools, including UNI at 12.
North Dakota State, of course, is No. 1, with Western Illinois 8th, South Dakota State 15th, Illinois State 18th, Youngstown State 20th and Indiana State 24th. The league owns four wins over FBS schools: UNI over Iowa State, North Dakota State over Iowa, Illinois State over Northwestern and Western Illinois over Northern Illinois just this past weekend.
Northern Iowa’s initial MVFC opponent is Southern Illinois, Saturday at 4 p.m. at the UNI-Dome. SIU isn’t ranked but is 2-1, with the only loss by eight points to FBS Florida Atlantic.
“Definintely going to be a big challenge for us,” said UNI linebacker D’Shawn Dexter. “With this league, those four (FBS) wins, that didn’t surprise me. In the Missouri Valley, day in and day out, anybody can beat you. You have to come with your ‘A’ game. Every day, every week, preparing and bringing it. I think we’re doing that.”
Northern Iowa (1-2) had a bye last week, which wasn’t such a bad thing. Coach Mark Farley said it allowed injured players a chance to heal and his team to work on solidifying its depth on both sides of the football.
For instance, freshman Davonius Reed has moved from defensive line to offensive line and is listed on the depth chart as backup right guard. That’s about the only noticeable player change, though Farley hinted his special teams might be shaken up some.
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The Panthers allowed a punt return for touchdown in a loss to Montana and a kickoff return TD in a loss at Eastern Washington. It’s those not-so-little things that could very well make a difference between a successful MVFC campaign and a not-so-succcessful one.
“I don’t think Coach wants us to stress about anything,” said UNI defensive back Ray Buchanan Jr. “I think he just wants us to go out there and play. He wants us to focus on each day and getting better. We were kind of in a similar situation two years ago. We played Iowa and Hawaii ... We have a young team like we did that year, but I feel like we’re going to do well. I feel like we’re going to do well against our (conference) competition.”
Southern Illinois has scored 118 points in its first three games, and UNI’s defense will see another spread-you-out attack. Daquan Isom is one of the best running backs in the MVFC, while quarterback Josh Straughan has had a seamless transition from Division II Stillman (Ala.) to FCS, completing 66 percent of his passes thus far, with six touchdowns and no interceptions.
“They have a really, really tough schedule. Coach Farley has been doing this for a long time, and he knows what he’s doing with scheduling,” first-year Southern Illinois Coach Nick Hill said. “He has tested his team. They could easily be 3-0. It’s a really good football team.”
“What has happened in the conference that is most noticeable right now is there are four (FBS) wins, and that might be the first time ever. There is a lot of confidence in the league, a lot of talent in the league,” Farley said. “From top to bottom, the league is stronger than it’s been ever. The top is very good, and the middle (are) becoming top 25 programs. And you can’t say the bottom isn’t top 25 when you look at it.”
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