Opponent capsules: Northern Iowa Panthers

Experience, talent have UNI among the nation's top FCS programs

University of Northern Iowa's Sawyer Kollmorgen (17) drops back to pass to David Johnson (7) in the fourth quarter Satur
University of Northern Iowa’s Sawyer Kollmorgen (17) drops back to pass to David Johnson (7) in the fourth quarter Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013, at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames. ¬ Scott Morgan | Photos for The Gazette

The first installment of a series ranking Iowa’s 12 opponents for the 2014 season. First up: No. 12 Northern Iowa


Conference: Missouri Valley Football Conference

2013 record: 7-5 (3-5 MVFC)

Returning offensive starters (8): QB Sawyer Kollmorgen, RB David Johnson, WR Chad Owens, WR Kevin Vereen Jr., TE Brandon Lehman, LT Jack Rummells, RT Ryan Bingaman, LG Kirk Harris

Projected starting offense: QB Sawyer Kollmorgen, jr., 6-2, 215; RB David Johnson, sr., 6-3, 235; WR Kevin Vereen Jr., jr., 6-3, 205; WR Chad Owens, sr., 5-11, 183; WR Brett LeMaster, sr., 6-3, 200; TE Brandon Lehman, jr., 6-7, 245; LT Jack Rummells, sr., 6-5, 301; LG Kirk Harris, jr., 6-5, 302; C Robert Rathje, so., 6-3, 292; RG Justin Putney, so., 6-6, 325; RT Ryan Bingaman, sr. 6-5, 290

Returning defensive starters (8): DT Xavier Williams, LB Max Busher, LB Jake Farley, LB Brett McMakin, CB Makinton Dorleant, CB Deiondre’ Hall, SS Ray Mitchell, FS Tate Omli

Projected starting defense: DE/OLB Brett McMakin, so., 6-4, 215; DL Xavier Williams, sr., 6-4, 311; DL Isaac Ales, jr., 6-3, 260; DL Mac O’Brien, sr., 6-2, 280; MLB Jake Farley, sr., 6-2, 230; LB Blake Willson, jr., 6-4, 225; LB Max Busher, sr., 6-1, 220; CB Makinton Dorleant, jr., 5-11, 185; CB Deiondre Hall, jr., 6-2, 190; S Ray Mitchell, sr., 6-1, 200; S Tate Omli, sr., 5-10, 210

Returning specialists (2): P Logan Bieghler, jr., 6-0, 180; 6-0, 180; KR/PR Brion Carnes, sr., 6-1, 200

Other specialists: K Michael Schmadeke, jr., 5-10, 165; LS Tom McClimon, sr., 6-0, 230

Key losses: C Mark Blessington, RG Dan Kruger, DE Chris Jepsen, DE Collin Albrecht, LB Jordan Gacke, LB Sam Tim, K Tyler Sievertsen, LS Ryan Dixon

Key additions: WR Jacob Hurla, jr., 6-3, 190 (from Texas Tech); RB Barkley Hill, so., 6-0, 220 (Iowa); DB Ray Buchanan, so., 5-11, 180 (Arkansas); S Damon Hendrix, jr., 6-1, 215 (Phoenix Junior College)

2013 review: Perhaps no team suffered through a more gut-wrenching year (at least in the Football Championship Subdivision) than Northern Iowa in 2013. The Panthers opened with a pair of in-state wins, including a 28-20 victory at Iowa State, then won at Northern Colorado and blasted No. 9 McNeese State 41-6 to start 4-0. Then the season unraveled in excruciating fashion.

The Panthers led three-time national champion North Dakota State on the road, until the Bison scored the go-ahead touchdown with 2:52 left to win 24-23. UNI followed with three consecutive overtime defeats. The first two were at home — 24-17 to Southern Illinois; the second 38-31 in two overtimes to South Dakota — and the third at South Dakota State 37-34 in two overtimes. The losses coupled with injuries to key starters RB David Johnson and QB Sawyer Kollmorgen limited UNI in a 13-3 loss at Illinois State. The Panthers rallied with three straight wins to end the season, including a 22-20 win against No. 9 Youngstown State.

UNI finished with four first-team all-MVFC players, and three return this year. Johnson, who missed one game and didn’t start the final three with injuries, still was a third-team All-American by leading the team in rushing (1,286) and was 10th nationally in rushing yards per game (116.9). DT Xavier Williams and OT Jack Rummells also were first team last year.

2014 schedule: A30 at Iowa; S13 at Hawaii; S20 Northern Colorado; S27 Tennessee Tech; O4 at Indiana State; O11 at South Dakota; O18 South Dakota State; O25 at Western Illinois; N1 Illinois State; N8 North Dakota State; N15 at Southern Illinois; N22 Missouri State

Key Stretch: It’s easy to look at Northern Iowa’s first two games and place a heavy importance on them. Playing at in-state power Iowa followed by a sunny trip to Mountain West squad Hawaii carries value based on perception. But neither game on paper means as much as the closing three-game stretch. The Panthers end against defending national champion North Dakota State, perennial contender Southern Illinois and then Missouri State. At worst the Panthers figure to compete for playoff spot during that stretch, and their performance could mean the difference between a national seed or barely squeaking in the field.

Trap game: South Dakota upset Northern Iowa 38-31 in two overtimes last year at the UNI-Dome. That was the high point for the Coyotes, who promptly lost their final five games to tie the Panthers for the seventh in the Valley standings. UNI plays at South Dakota on Oct. 11 and, at first blush, it appears unlikely UNI would overlook South Dakota — especially on the road. But the Panthers face national quarterfinalist South Dakota State the following week in Cedar Falls in a showdown that could determine North Dakota State’s primary challenger. That’s why the Coyotes are a trap game.

Glass half-full: There’s plenty to like about Northern Iowa entering this season, from its veteran skill position players to its experienced tackles to a compete return in the secondary. Senior RB David Johnson might be one of the top players in the Midwest, regardless of conferences. At UNI, he’s tied for fourth all-time in career rushing touchdowns (32), seventh in career points (264) and fourth in career rushing yards (3,129). Three-year starting QB Sawyer Kollmorgen has thrown for 35 touchdowns and 4,284 passing yards in his career, and the Panthers bring back their top five pass catchers. Linebacker and defensive leader Jake Farley returns from injury along with 20 seniors and 19 players who have started.

Glass half-empty: UNI gets its crack at the big boys right off the bat with a game at Kinnick Stadium on Aug. 30, then faces Mountain West’s Hawaii two weeks later. UNI played a pair of FBS schools two years ago (Iowa and Wisconsin) and was so banged up the Panthers struggled to contend the rest of the season. This has the potential for a strong season, but a few injuries could push the Panthers from the FCS elite to a borderline playoff team.

The Iowa angle: This series has become less a financial helping hand from Iowa to competitive near-rivalry filled with mutual respect. The Panthers scared the daylights out of Iowa in 2009 when the Hawkeyes blocked two UNI field-goal attempts in the game’s final seconds, preserving a 17-16 Hawkeyes’ win. When the teams played in 2012, Iowa treated UNI as it would a Big Ten squad. There were no gimmicks, just merely finding a way in a 27-16 victory.

This is the one opportunity for UNI players to show their mettle against a top-tier in-state program that overlooked them on the recruiting trail. That has worked for UNI in the past against Iowa State, including last year in a 28-20 win. Johnson, who hails from Clinton, will be out to prove Iowa whiffed on not signing him. It’s the old “chip on the shoulder” game for UNI. Based on Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz’s past, it’s likely Iowa won’t overlook the Panthers, however.

But Iowa’s physical play creates issues for UNI. Iowa boasts maybe the Big Ten’s best defensive tackle tandem in Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, and UNI will break in new starters at center and guard. The Hawkeyes rushed for 201 yards to UNI’s 94 in their 2012 meeting. Iowa held the ball for nearly 35 minutes and kept UNI to 2-of-10 on third-down conversions. Iowa’s Mark Weisman began the day as Iowa’s fullback and after 113 yards on 24 carries, he became its primary ball carrier for the last two seasons.

Quotable: “With everyone coming back, it being my senior year, we’re just focused on winning the conference ... if I end up breaking records, that’s a good benefit added on to it. I’m definitely aware of it. Who wouldn’t be, in that situation?” — Northern Iowa running back David Johnson

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