116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
FCS No. 22 Northern Iowa kicks off its 2022 football season in Colorado Springs, Colo., at Air Force on Saturday.
Picked second in the Mountain West Conference’s Mountain Division preseason poll, the Falcons are coming off a 10-3 2021 season that included an impressive 31-28 win in the First Responder Bowl against Louisville.
After leading the country in rushing yards per game (328.2) a season ago, Air Force is poised to be led offensively by returning running back Brad Roberts and returning quarterback Haaziq Daniels.
Saturday’s game will be the first matchup between the two programs.
Here are three keys for UNI against Air Force:
1. Sturdy shoulders
UNI coach Mark Farley has preached assignment details and execution whenever asked about the season-opening matchup against the Falcons. As plain as it may sound, Air Force’s triple-option flexbone offense is stubborn by design, with an aim to take advantage of the handful of plays its opponents’ defenses miss an assignment.
While potential defensive breakdowns are critical to any success the Falcons can have, what can go overlooked is sound tackling by its opponents that allows 2- or 3-yard gains to turn into gains of 5, 6 or more yards.
The Panthers’ ability to tackle soundly and endure the physical toll of such a run-heavy game plan Air Force will employ will be critical to their chances of pulling the upset.
2. Show your hand
UNI’s new offense — led by co-offensive coordinators Bodie Reeder and Ryan Clanton — will be under the proverbial microscope Saturday and throughout this season. Many teams approach their week 1 games in a scaled-back, vanilla manner regarding play calls, but the Panthers do not have that luxury against such a formidable opponent.
So, despite any historical precedent to not show too much, UNI simply cannot hold anything back when it comes to its play calls against the Falcons. Whether that relates to the ability to make the game competitive or their need to get this new scheme headed in the right direction as soon as possible.
3. Special, special teams
If UNI limits its defensive breakdowns, tackles well and puts forth an above-average effort on offense, a close game will be had and special teams will likely make the difference.
In the kicking game, the Panthers are among the FCS’s best with All-American Matthew Cook. However, at punter, redshirt freshman Cael Loecher is looking to solidify himself after winning the job in fall camp.
A season ago UNI ranked ninth in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, averaging just 38.3 yards per punt. If the Panthers’ high hopes for this season and Saturday’s season opener are to be realized, Loecher will need to launch his team into the top third of the conference’s punting ranks.
UNI at Air Force
Kickoff time: Noon (CT)
Line: Air Force -16.5
TV: Altitude Sports
Live stream: Mountain West Network
Prediction: Air Force 27, UNI 17