Northern Iowa will get an opportunity to say “told you so” to the FCS selection committee with its second-round playoff game Saturday against No. 10 South Dakota State.
After Saturday’s game, UNI (9-4) will have played the Jackrabbits five times since 2017. South Dakota State (8-4) finished its regular season with a surprise 24-21 loss at rival South Dakota (5-7), and before its 38-7 regular-season win against UNI, the Jackrabbits lost at home, 27-18, against Illinois State (9-4).
Here are three things to watch for in Saturday’s game:
1. Overcoming injury
UNI’s snub of a top-8 seed was most damaging in what it meant for its injured players not getting the benefit of a week of rest.
Headed into Saturday’s game, the Panthers have at least four questionable regulars. That list includes running back Tyler Hoosman (ankle), wide receiver Isaiah Weston (turf toe), middle linebacker Chris Kolarevic (lower body) and defensive end Seth Thomas (undisclosed).
When discussing his offense’s struggles in last week’s 17-3 first-round win over San Diego, UNI head coach Mark Farley was candid in saying that they’re on “low octane” offensively. How much Weston has been able to heal in a week will have a huge factor on the offense’s potency, along with how healed Hoosman’s ankle is.
Kolarevic’s backup, Spencer Cuvelier, would start for most FCS teams, but UNI’s defense will lose some quickness at the second level if it’s without Kolarevic.
2. McElvain Magic
UNI redshirt freshman quarterback Will McElvain put together an impressive rookie campaign that earned him honorable mention All-Missouri Valley Football Conference and a spot on the Valley all-newcomer team this week.
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Awards aside, McElvain will likely need to play one of his best games to give his team a chance at the win. Given the uncertainty of Weston and Hoosman’s health, the Des Moines native will need to find a way to be explosive when targeting Jaylin James or Logan Wolf. It will also be interesting to see if one of McElvain’s favorite targets earlier this season — Deion McShane — is finally healthy enough to become a considerable part of the game plan.
3. Hasslin’ Heide
In the Jackrabbits’ win over UNI on Nov. 16, freshman quarterback Keaton Heide completed his first 13 passes of the game and finished 15-of-16. The week prior, Illinois State blitzed Heide relentlessly and came up with three sacks, three fumbles and an interception.
All season long UNI has benefited tremendously from its ability to turn opponents over. The Panthers will likely need to add to their plus-13 turnover margin Saturday to earn a tough road playoff win.
UNI at South Dakota State
Time: 1 p.m. CT
Watch online: ESPN3
Radio: KGYM-AM 1600
Listen online: TuneIn
Line: South Dakota State -9
Prediction: South Dakota State 31 UNI 21
Injuries and inconsistent offense will prove too much to overcome in hostile territory. The Panthers likely will keep it close until the final 15-20 minutes, when homefield advantage and the benefits of a bye week give the Jackrabbits the edge they need to pull away to the quarterfinals.