CEDAR FALLS — No. 13-ranked Northern Iowa kicks off its 2018 football season on the road Saturday night against No. 24 Montana.
UNI has never defeated Montana in five previous meetings, but with a veteran offense in tow and the Grizzlies under the guidance of first-year head coach Bobby Hauck, the crack in the proverbial door is large enough for the Panthers to end that winless streak.
Here are three keys for UNI for Saturday’s 8 p.m. (Iowa time) kickoff at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula, Mont.:
1. Keep Montana’s special teams from being special
Hauck’s coaching background is rooted in special teams. Combine that with one of college football’s most electric returners in Jerry Louie-McGee — he returned a punt 81 yards for a touchdown in a 2016 win at the UNI-Dome — and the Panthers must be assignment sound with their coverage teams.
One mistake from a coverage unit is all it could take for the Grizzlies to gain a game-winning edge.
When Bryce Paup rejoined UNI’s coaching staff as a defensive line coach, David Braun was reassigned to special teams. Having a coach on staff dedicated to his phase of the game could show itself through on-field execution.
2. Minimize negative plays on offense and shot-plays on defense
Of course this is every team’s goal every game, but the top-notch environment at Washington-Grizzly Stadium can easily amplify the effect of negative plays from an opponent’s offense.
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Missoula’s atmosphere can cause a snowball effect, where one or two negative plays from the offense can easily turn into a bad quarter or half.
The Montana faithful could play a factor.
Defensively, it may seem simple but the Panthers need to keep the ball in front of them. Too often throughout the first five games of 2017 that didn’t happen. A reconstructed defensive backfield will be attacked by Montana, so a veteran like A.J. Allen must communicate fluently with his less experienced teammates in the secondary.
3. Get off the bus running
That raucous atmosphere at Washington-Grizzly Stadium that keeps coming up? The Panthers can put a muzzle on it with a stout running game.
While there are plenty of new faces on Montana’s defense, it’s coming off a season in which it gave up 169.5 rushing yards per game. No doubt that UNI offensive coordinator John Bond is aware of that number. Trevor Allen and Alphonso Soko will need to be effective so Marcus Weymiller has the gas left in his tank to put the game away in the second half.
Projected UNI depth chart
QB: Eli Dunne, Colton Howell, Jacob Keller/Will McElvain
RB: Marcus Weymiller, Trevor Allen, Alphonso Soko
FB: Bryce Flater, Trey Recknor
WR: Jaylin James, Aaron Graham, Jalen Rima, Terrell Carey, Deion McShane
TE: Briley Moore, Elias Nissen, Tristan Bohr
LT: Cal Twait, Matthew Vanderslice
LG: Jackson Scott-Brown, Erik Sorensen
C: Ezrah Szczyrbak, Mason Neisen
RG: Nick Ellis, Trevor Penning
RT: Spencer Brown, Tyler Putney
DE: Rickey Neal, Seth Thomas, Hezekiah Applegate, Elerson Smith
DT: Bryce Douglas, Jared Brinkman, Tim Butcher, Brawntae Wells
MLB: Duncan Ferch, Kendrick Suntken
WLB: Jake Hartford, Chris Kolarevic, Alfonzo Lambert
NLB: Suni Lane, Blake Thomas
CB: Xavior Williams, Roosevelt Lawrence, Isaiah Nimmers, Shakespeare Williams
FS: Korby Sander, Christian Jegen
SS: A.J. Allen, Austin Evans
K: Austin Errthum/Sam Drysdale
P: Michael Kuntz
LS: Joe Friedrich
KR: Xavior Williams, Trevor Allen
PR: Jalen Rima, Trevor Allen