With four games remaining as it sits alone in second place in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, No. 23 Northern Iowa (4-3, 3-1) needs to avoid a setback this weekend in Macomb, Ill., against Western Illinois (3-4, 2-2). The Leathernecks are playing for their playoff lives.
Here are three keys to a UNI win against Western Illinois.
1. Confuse And Pressure Sean McGuire
Dive into the numbers and conduct an eye test and Sean McGuire is arguably the MVFC’s second best quarterback. The fifth-year Western Illinois senior is averaging 265.4 yards passing per game, second only to Austin Simmons, who plays in Bob Nielson’s up-tempo, pass-heavy offense at South Dakota.
UNI head coach Mark Farley compared McGuire to North Dakota State’s Easton Stick this week. McGuire may not pile up rushing yards with designed runs like Stick, but the two are similarly athletic and McGuire may hold the edge as a passer.
Last season, McGuire orchestrated a nine-play, 65-yard drive with just over a minute remaining to devastate UNI. Revenge is certainly on the mind of the Panthers and it’ll require confusing and pressuring the veteran QB to get the road win.
Rotating its 4-2-5 and 3-3-5 defensive alignments has created the requisite amount of confusion and pressure for UNI to defeat South Dakota and South Dakota State the past two weeks. The Panthers will need that trend to continue against McGuire and the Leathernecks.
2. Start Fast And Score First
Every coach in the country, no matter the level or sport, will never fail to remind how difficult playing on the road is for their team. Winning on the road in the MVFC is no different, but it becomes exceptionally difficult when playing from behind.
UNI’s offense has been efficient in its last two wins, but it hasn’t scored on its first drive since in three weeks.
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Perhaps some midseason self-scouting by offensive coordinator John Bond will unearth a script of plays to put the Panthers in the end zone on their first drive. With the Leathernecks playing for their season, the game may depend on it.
3. Do. Your. Job.
After two consecutive wins, the most recent against then-No. 3 South Dakota State, the Panthers are undoubtedly feeling good about themselves but saying all the right things publicly about staying humble and focused. If those public comments are being realized privately in practice and in the locker room, a realistic path exists for UNI to finish second in the MVFC, be a top-8 seed in the FCS Playoffs and receive a first-round bye.
After holding SDSU nearly 40 points below its scoring average last week, it’s not impossible that UNI’s defense could feel so good about itself that players take an uncharacteristic risk or two that could swing the balance in a conference road game.
The Panthers will need to toe the line of utilizing the swagger they’ve earned the past couple weeks while not allowing it to make themselves undisciplined enough to drop a game they’re favored to win.