116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR FALLS — With Thanksgiving in the rearview mirror, No. 25 Northern Iowa (6-5) travels to Eastern Washington Saturday for the first round of the FCS Playoffs.
Picked third in the Big Sky Conference’s preseason poll, the Eagles’ (9-2) only conference losses were to Weber State and Montana State at home.
Ranked second in the FCS in passing offense, EWU is led by senior quarterback Eric Barriere, who ranks second in the FCS with 385.6 yards per game. Defensively, the Eagles rank sixth in the Big Sky, allowing 26.9 points per game.
The Panthers lead the all-time series 6-1, but lost their last meeting against the Eagles at Roos Field in 2016, 34-30.
Here’s three keys for UNI against Eastern Washington:
If UNI is going to pull an upset it’s hard to imagine a blueprint that doesn’t involve an advantage in time of possession.
Barriere and the Eagles’ high-powered offense can’t score if they’re on the sideline. Working in the Panthers’ favor is a return to health for all four of their top running backs. The return of tight ends Jayden Scott and Kyle Fourtenbary should also be helpful with run blocking and mixing up personnel groupings.
Running the ball on each drive until the Eagles stop it might sound simple and unimaginative, but it could be the biggest key to a win.
Sound special teams
UNI’s best games this season have all included quality special teams play.
If the Panthers are going to match EWU’s prolific, offense it will require its usual top-shelf defense along with field position-changing punts and conversions of their makable field goals.
A forecast that calls for a 50-percent chance of rain only adds to the importance of the game’s third phase.
Big play bonanza
With the less appealing keys out of the way, the matchup between the Panthers and Eagles will come down to playmaking.
UNI’s defense is tied for the FCS lead in takeaways, so it’s hard to see a path to a win for the Panthers without one or more. EWU, meanwhile, is second in the FCS in total offense, so an out-of-rhythm performance makes it hard to see the path to a win for the Eagles.
Be it interceptions, sacks, fumbles, big passes or runs, ultimately, the team that manufactures the most big plays win in the playoffs.
UNI at Eastern Washington in FCS playoffs
Kickoff time: 3 p.m. (CT)
Line: Eastern Washington -3.5
Live stream: ESPN+
Prediction: Eastern Washington 27 UNI 23