116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR FALLS — After a last-minute 34-27 loss at Missouri State, Northern Iowa (5-5, 3-4) hosts Western Illinois (2-8, 2-5) Saturday in its regular-season finale.
Picked last in the Missouri Valley Football Conference preseason poll, the Leathernecks’ two wins have come in weeks 4 and 9 against Youngstown State and Illinois State, respectively. Amid its struggles this season, WIU fired head coach Jared Elliot after having compiled a 9-30 record in four seasons.
Ranked first in the MVFC in passing offense, WIU is led by senior quarterback Connor Sampson — who averages a conference-best 302 yards per game. Despite Sampson’s gaudy numbers, the Leathernecks’ 10th-ranked defense has largely been the culprit for their struggles.
The Panthers lead the all-time series 32-16 and won their most recent matchup against WIU in the spring season, 34-20.
Here’s three keys for UNI against Western Illinois.
1. Possession prowess
With depth an issue, particularly on its defensive line, UNI cannot afford to have its defense on the field for extended periods against the Leathernecks.
Sampson’s 64.4 completion percentage is healthy enough that he alone can make up for WIU’s lack of a running game with short passes that wear down defenses.
The last thing the Panthers need is to have the Leathernecks hanging around late in the game, since they’ve proven themselves capable of scoring quickly in close losses this season against two playoff teams in Eastern Washington and Southern Illinois.
2. Bend, don’t break
Along with needing to stay off the field as much as possible, UNI’s defense needs to avoid some of its recent mistakes with blown coverages deep down the field.
A veteran quarterback like Sampson has undoubtedly seen those errors by the Panthers in his film study this week, so a point of emphasis on keeping WIU’s receivers in front at the cost of allowing completions underneath is a price worth paying Saturday.
This creates a tough scenario with the first key of staying off the field, so sound tackling and multiple players getting to the ball once it's caught will be critical.
3. Foot on the gas
Beyond what’s involved with avoiding an upset, UNI frankly needs to not only beat WIU, but do so in a convincing fashion to boost its playoff hopes at 6-5.
Whenever an opportunity presents itself to make a big play, the Panthers must be unafraid to do so. If the Leathernecks are punting from deep in their own territory, the call should be to attempt a block. If they’re stacking the box defensively, throw it deep. If the Leathernecks are playing undisciplined defense, run a trick play. Nothing should be off the table.
UNI vs. Western Illinois
Kickoff time: 1 p.m. (CT)
Live stream: ESPN3
Prediction: UNI 34 Western Illinois 20