CEDAR FALLS — After dropping its first two games, the Northern Iowa football team has bounced back with two consecutive shutout wins. The Panthers have outscored their previous two opponents 77-0, but No. 1 North Dakota State (4-0, 1-0) presents a much more difficult challenge.
Here are three keys to a UNI win against the defending national champions:
1. Limit Bison on the ground
North Dakota State annually sets itself apart from its competition with the ability to dominate physically. The Bison consistently place eight or nine in the box and bulldoze their way down the field, chewing clock and keeping their defense fresh in the process.
On top of its ability to dominate in the trenches, Bruce Anderson and Waterloo native Lance Dunn make up arguably the best running back duo in the FCS (NDSU is No. 9 in the FCS in rushing yards per game).
If UNI wants to upset No. 1, it will require slowing down its high-level running game. By limiting NDSU’s run game, the Panthers will force quarterback Easton Stick to overcome his poor career numbers against them — 127 yards per game, two touchdowns, four interceptions — to earn a win.
Stick is dangerous in his own right, but it’s a classic “pick your poison” dilemma. UNI’s defense has already proven that it can pressure the quarterback and produce interceptions. Forcing Stick and the Bison offense into passing situations has historically been the blueprint for creating an opportunity to beat the six-time national champions, and that starts with limiting the run game.
2. Good run game = Good Dunne
As the sample size has grown larger with Eli Dunne under center, it’s become clear that the Grinnell native is at his best when the running game is functioning. Dunne becomes lethal when RPOs (run-pass option) and play-action passes have to be respected.
Trevor Allen and Marcus Weymiller have both been exceptional in the Panthers’ last two wins — 403 rushing yards combined — and they’ll need to earn the respect of NDSU’s defense to put their offense in a position to succeed on Saturday.
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UNI offensive coordinator John Bond was critical of himself and head coach Mark Farley said the offense got away from its plan too soon after last season’s 30-14 loss to the Bison at the Fargodome. There’s likely to be a stubborn effort to get the running game going against the Bison, and for good reason.
3. Win the turnover battle
Of course this is key in any football game, but against the Bison, it’s magnified for a number of reasons. NDSU is consistently a top-five time-of-possession offense. The key ingredient to that time-of-possession prowess is its aforementioned running game.
Their run game also limits the quarterback’s exposure to turnovers. All of it adds up to limited time and possessions for opponents and a high level of difficulty when it comes to taking the ball away.
Winning the turnover margin will create the extra possessions necessary for UNI to topple the Bison. With the Panthers secondary entering its third consecutive game with the same personnel, a growing rapport between that personnel can only help.
Defensive coordinator Jeremiah Johnson told The Gazette this week that there’s always schemes and plays that each team saves for this game. Perhaps the 12th-year coordinator has a few tricks up his sleeve that will prove effective Saturday.