116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa football’s 2021 season was nothing short of a roller-coaster ride.
There were ups and downs, loops and corkscrews as week-to-week it was hard to know which version of the Panthers would show up.
In Week 1, UNI lost, 16-10, at then-FBS No. 7 Iowa State, and despite the loss, learned it again had a defense that could give itself an opportunity to win any of its games.
A trip to California in Week 2 proved to be the most profound game of the season.
After beating out newcomers Theo Day and Matt Morrissey in a preseason quarterback competition, six quarters of mostly unproductive football to begin the season — and a later disclosed foot injury — from Will McElvain prompted a halftime quarterback switch to Day against Sacramento State. The Michigan State transfer went on to engineer a comeback win over the eventual Big Sky Conference champion, 34-16, and took the starting gig in the process.
After a Week 3 thrashing of Pioneer League newcomer St. Thomas and a whipping of Youngstown State in the Missouri Valley Football Conference opener, UNI’s run game looked revived and Day’s progression was steady.
Week 6 is when the roller-coaster ride became gnarly.
The Panthers lost, 34-20, at then-No. 5 North Dakota State and 34-21 at home to South Dakota as injuries mounted. The run game struggled, Day encountered ball-security issues that would persist throughout the rest of the season, and the defense began to suffer uncharacteristic coverage woes.
At the same time, McElvain announced his entrance into the transfer portal.
On its heels and seemingly already on the playoff bubble, UNI reinserted itself with back-to-back wins at then-No. 6 South Dakota State and at home against then-No. 3 Southern Illinois.
A stubborn, run-heavy approach and stingy defense was the blueprint to those wins. However, Day’s struggles persisted — he threw three interceptions and completed just 53 percent of his passes in the two key wins.
Sitting 5-3 with no bad losses, the roller coaster came off its tracks in Week 10 at Illinois State. Execution and penalties caught up to UNI. Day was sacked six times and 42 rushes amounted to just 63 net yards in an ugly, 17-10 overtime loss.
A patchwork roster put forth an admirable effort at then-No. 16 Missouri State a week later, but a last-minute touchdown drive gave the Bears a 34-27 win.
A regular-season finale against lowly Western Illinois provided a get-right opportunity for the Panthers in what became a 41-3 blowout.
One day later, UNI’s three wins against playoff qualifiers, most notably Sacramento State, was enough for the last at-large bid to the 24-team FCS playoffs.
The committee did the Panthers no favors, though, sending them to Eastern Washington to take on one of the FCS’ best offenses and the game’s result — a 19-9 loss — was largely a microcosm of their entire season as a stellar defensive effort wasn’t enough to overcome an inconsistent offense.
Now it’s time to build toward 2022.
“The message in the locker room was, one, learn from guys like Trevor (Penning), (Jared) Brinkman and Isaiah Weston,” Coach Mark Farley said after Saturday’s playoff loss ended the UNI season at 6-6. “They’re different for a reason. That’s the key our team can take from those players.”