116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR FALLS — After a 52-17 blowout of Western Illinois last Saturday, Northern Iowa begins a four game homestand Satuday against Indiana State.
Picked 10th in the Missouri Valley Football Conference’s preseason poll, the Sycamores (1-2) finished 2021 5-6 overall and 3-5 in conference games.
Indiana State is coming off an early bye week, but suffered back-to-back losses in weeks 2 and 3 at Purdue and at home against Montana. The Sycamores’ only win came in week 1 against North Alabama — a 17-14 final that took a 25-yard Ryan O’Grady field goal in overtime.
The Sycamore offense is led by redshirt sophomore quarterback Gavin Screws, who’s thrown four interceptions and averaged only 113 yards per game. Running backs Justin Dinka and Tee Hodge are a one-two punch in the backfield averaging 93 yards per game as a duo, and MVFC preseason second-team honoree Dante Hendrix leads the team in receiving yards per game (63).
UNI leads the all-time series 29-5 and won the last matchup at the UNI-Dome in 2019, 17-9.
Here are three keys for the Panthers against Indiana State:
1. Play-action prowess
As dynamic as the Panthers passing attack has proven to be with Theo Day’s ability to make throws and receivers’ ability to consistently get open, the separator between good and very good has been their play-action pass. It has routinely provoked the necessary forward steps from opposing linebackers and Day has made some of his best reads on play-action.
If UNI wants to continue to reap the benefits of play-action, it’ll require continued success running the ball on early downs. Dom Williams’ 5.8 and Vance McShane’s 5.1 yards per carry averages are good, but don’t have much room to move backward if the Panthers’ play-action passes are to remain potent play calls.
2. D-line disruption
Redshirt sophomore Cannon Butler’s first career start at defensive tackle last week came with his first career sack. Coach Mark Farley praised Butler’s first start and pointed out how his play from beginning to end of the Western Illinois game earned him a lot more opportunities.
Farley also pointed out how Butler being inserted as a starting defensive tackle helped settle the rest of their rotation of defensive linemen.
If Butler can continue to be a disruptive force in the interior of UNI’s defensive line, there’s reason to think last Saturday’s performance at WIU is a sign that the Panthers defense has legitimately bounced back.
3. Third phase factor
With six of its last seven regular-season games against MVFC opponents, special teams should be under the proverbial microscope the rest of this season.
The difference in MVFC games frequently comes down to special teams and UNI has displayed it has the players to create game-changing plays in all areas of the third phase.
Deion McShane and Quan Hampton are capable of providing great field position on punt and kick returns. Matthew Cook is an All-America placekicker and Cael Loecher looks poised to compete for postseason honors in his first season as starting punter.
If the other 10 guys on the field routinely execute, the Panthers could very well have special teams to thank for bouncing back from their 0-3 start to clinch another playoff berth.
UNI vs. Indiana State
Kickoff time: 4 p.m. (CT)
Live stream: ESPN+
Prediction: UNI 41, Indiana State 17