CEDAR FALLS — The reason that the Northern Iowa football team’s longest-tenured assistant gave for staying so long is as understandable as it gets.
“This biggest thing is our family,” said Jeremiah Johnson, UNI’s 12th-year defensive coordinator. “My wife and I love this area. We like raising our kids here. Her family is close. My family is close. So, for us, it makes a lot of sense for us to be here. We’ve been fortunate enough that Coach (Mark) Farley has kept us around, but we really like it here.”
Aside from the family aspect that’s kept Johnson in the Cedar Valley, there’s also his master’s level rapport with Farley, in his 18th season at the helm.
“I know what he is thinking most of the time, he knows what I’m thinking most of the time, and so I think that obviously helps us,” Johnson said. “For me, I really like the guys I work with. I love the kids that play for us. For us, it’s just perfect.”
As UNI’s conference has transitioned from the Gateway to the Missouri Valley — with well-funded, well-operated programs such as South Dakota State and North Dakota State emerging — the challenges have grown greater for Johnson. Looming at 1 p.m. this Saturday (NBCS Chicago) is none other than No. 1 North Dakota State (4-0, 1-0), which has won six of the past seven national championships.
“We haven’t played a real, real physical team since Iowa,” Johnson said. “(The Bison) are physical. It’s just a different brand of football than we’ve played the last couple weeks. So we’ve got to be ready to buckle down and get into a fist fight, basically.”
At the center of Johnson’s gameplan is slowing down Bison quarterback Easton Stick. However, defeating North Dakota State isn’t as simple as limiting its star quarterback’s effectiveness. Stick boasts a career record of 38-3 and is 2-0 against the Panthers (2-2, 1-0), but in those two games, he’s thrown for only 254 yards and two touchdowns against four interceptions with a paltry 41-percent completion rate. Many times, the X-factor against the Bison is which team sets the tone in terms of physicality.
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“In the box, it’s like bodies going through a sausage grinder in there,” Johnson said. “(Stick) is probably the best (QB) in our league that we have to face. The bigger the game — and now we’re in league play, so they’re all big — you’ve got to have guys that have played in these games. We’ve got a handful that have experience.”
UNI’s defense is riding nine consecutive quarters of shutout football, but the quality of its previous two opponents has left both Farley and Johnson wanting more as they understand the level of play is bound to be ratcheted up. So, besides what seems to be momentum working in the Panthers’ favor, they stand to benefit from personnel continuity. Saturday will mark the third consecutive week that freshman Jevon Brekke will start at free safety and sophomore Korby Sander at nickel linebacker.
“I think Jevon (Brekke) being a true freshman, he’s like a sponge right now,” Johnson said. “So, he has to learn everyday. Even on game days, he’s got to learn. He’s a disciplined kid with his eyes. He’s willing to hit, and he’s real intelligent.
And Korby’s a big physical kid and he’s done a good job down there (at nickel linebacker).”