116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa looks to avoid an 0-3 start to its football season Saturday when it hosts No. 8 Sacramento State in its home opener.
Picked second in the Big Sky preseason coaches poll, the Hornets (1-0) finished 2021 as Big Sky champions, going 9-3 overall and 8-0 in conference games.
The Hornets are led offensively by a formidable passing game that operates with two quarterbacks — seniors Jake Dunniway and Asher O’Hara. In last season’s matchup with the Panthers, O’Hara threw for a game-high 338 yards, but was intercepted three times and sacked three times.
Sacramento State is coming off an early bye week after defeating Utah Tech 56-33 in week one. The Hornets’ win over the Trailblazers was another prime example of their unique two-quarterback system working to their benefit as O’Hara threw for 119 yards and two touchdowns in 19 attempts while adding another 65 rushing yards. Meanwhile, Dunniway threw for 74 yards, completing six of his nine attempts.
UNI leads the all-time series 1-0 after an upset, 34-16, win at Hornet Stadium last season.
Here are three keys for UNI against Sacramento State:
1. Bend, don’t break
The shortcomings of UNI’s defense have been well documented through the first two weeks of the season as the Panthers have allowed an average of 564.5 yards and 38.5 points per game.
It doesn’t seem feasible that UNI’s defense will suddenly snap out of its funk and revert back to its usual top-10 in FCS form. So, with that in mind, measured improvement this week against a dynamic Sacramento State offense should be the approach, and a measured expectation can begin with an emphasis on not allowing the Hornets to make big plays.
2. Red zone remedy
Last week’s offense-related key was for the Panthers to simply build off a respectable debut two weeks ago at Air Force, and despite some errors, there was improvement.
In its loss to Air Force, UNI averaged 7.2 yards per play and totaled 405 yards. In last week’s loss at North Dakota, the Panthers totaled 449 yards and averaged 9.8 yards per play.
The returns through two games are more than promising with Bodie Reeder and Ryan Clanton’s new offense. The biggest critique, though, are shortcomings in the red zone.
UNI’s 71.4-percent red zone scoring average is eighth among Missouri Valley Football Conference teams, so it’s hard to argue against there being room for improvement inside opponents’ 20-yard line.
Turnovers aside, the eye test through two games — along with Coach Mark Farley’s remarks this week during his press conference — indicate that red zone play-calling has likely been under the microscope after the body of work put together through two weeks.
3. Splash plays
As important as limiting big plays by Sacramento State will be, it may prove equally important that UNI finds a way to create its own big plays against the defending Big Sky champion.
Trailing 29-20 with 7:02 to play last week, Theo Day connected with Deion McShane for a 72-yard touchdown that brought the Panthers back within one possession. While UNI was unable to complete a comeback, Farley explained this week how a big play like Day’s pass to McShane brings confidence to not only the offense, but the entire team. The belief that play brings to the Panthers’ new offense could prove critical as tough games like Saturday’s are littered on their upcoming schedule.
UNI vs. Sacramento State
Kickoff time: 4 p.m. (CT)
Live stream: ESPN+
Prediction: UNI 34 Sacramento State 27