CEDAR FALLS — Without Suni Lane’s return to wide receiver it’s impossible to know how things might have played out for Northern Iowa in its 13-10 win against South Dakota State last Saturday in the second round of the FCS Playoffs.
Lane made the biggest catch of his career and UNI’s season Saturday. A 31-yard snag over his outside shoulder with a defender on his hip set up Matthew Cook’s 18-yard game-winning field goal with just over two minutes to play.
“I knew the ball was coming to me,” Lane said. “When I saw the play call I just had to lock in and watch the ball in.
“It was exciting. I had a feeling as soon as I made that catch — I thought we had won the game. And I knew once I saw Cook go in I knew he was going to make the field goal.”
After playing safety and nickelback his first two seasons, Lane spoke to head coach Mark Farley before winter conditioning last year and the two agreed a return to wide receiver was best.
The Bettendorf native arrived at UNI with impressive high school film at wide receiver and safety. Add to that his 6-foot 3-inch, 200-pound frame and it’s easy to understand how offensive and defensive coaches on the UNI staff wrestled over where Lane best fit on the roster.
The decision paid off in a 27-10 win against Illinois State in which Lane caught a pair of touchdown passes.
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“Here’s a guy that didn’t play much at the beginning of the season (and) he gets two touchdowns in the biggest game of the season for us,” Farley said after that Nov. 2 win. “He’s got great hands. He just needed his opportunity as well and he’s making the most of it and I’m so happy for him because he played two years of defense for us, got redshirted one of them, and really receiver is what he is.”
Lane’s first breakout play was against the Redbirds, a 27-yard touchdown catch on a route adjustment as quarterback Will McElvain alluded what appeared to be a sure sack.
Now, nearly a year back into playing his favorite position, Lane has become a regular contributor in UNI’s offense and says improved confidence has helped him most.
“Getting moved back (to receiver), it just boosted my confidence,” Lane said. “I put in the work. I’d say reading defenses is definitely something that has helped me as well. Playing defense for the past two years just helps me read DBs and read coverages and stuff that I didn’t really do too much in high school that really helps me.”
Turn on the tape and McElvain has had no hesitation in targeting the redshirt sophomore after he climbed the depth chart and increased his snap counts.
He’ll be counted on again in a quarterfinal game at 6 p.m. Friday against No. 2 James Madison (12-1) in Harrisonburg, Va. No. 1 receiver Isaiah Weston (concussion) is questionable.
“I wouldn’t say (practice) was any different than any other week,” Lane said. “We know we have a good (opponent) but we’re approaching it like any other game. (Practice) hasn’t been as fast — Coach has been taking it a little bit light on our legs, but we’re still making sure we’re getting our reps in.”