CEDAR FALLS — After failing to come back from a 23-0 halftime deficit against Montana in Week 1, Northern Iowa football (0-1) had the benefit of a bye week before its Week 3 meeting with Iowa (2-0).
With questions at quarterback, injuries at wide receiver, and the Hawkeyes defense looking like a top-tier unit in the Big Ten, here are three keys for UNI for Saturday’s 6:40 p.m. kickoff at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.
1. Fast start
An ugly stat from UNI’s dismal first half against Montana was just three of its 22 first downs came in the first half. Obviously the Panthers cannot afford for that stat to repeat itself, but especially against an opponent that goes about its business in the fashion Iowa does.
Whether it’s Eli Dunne or Colton Howell under center in the first quarter, there has to be a plan to not only move the chains, but stay ahead of them. Second or third and longs that can allow Iowa’s defensive linemen to pin their ears back and rush the passer will equal disaster.
UNI’s pass protection was good against Montana but the run blocking wasn’t up to snuff. Consistent positive yardage, more first-half first downs, and not getting blown away in the time-of-possession battle will go a long way toward UNI keeping the game competitive.
2. Ball security
Ask any head coach in the country for keys to a game and taking care of the football is bound to be mentioned. However, UNI fumbled four times against Montana — but miraculously lost none of the four — and Dunne threw an ill-advised interception in what became his last drive as the starting QB early in the third quarter.
While Howell’s effectiveness and a stout defensive effort nearly overcame all those ball-security issues, there’s no doubt that regardless of the opponent, the Panthers cannot afford to put the ball on the turf or throw off-balance passes into double coverage.
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Running backs Deion McShane and Alphonso Soko came into the Montana game as inexperienced players and exited it without instilling confidence into their head coach to be trusted with the ball. It’s possible UNI head coach Mark Farley could emphasize distributing the ball to more seasoned players on such a big stage. It’ll be interesting to watch the players that are getting the ball distributed to them in the first half and compare it to the Montana game.
3. Extra possessions
Besides taking care of the football, the other way UNI can put itself in a position to pull of the upset is by taking the ball away. Iowa has put the ball on the turf just once and was able to recover while Nate Stanley has thrown just one interception in two games.
It won’t be easy, but whether it’s through deceptive coverage schemes, exotic blitzes or simply old-fashioned play-making, the Panthers will need to create an extra possession or two to give themselves a chance at the upset.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz attack first-year starting safety Austin Evans with preseason All-American tight end Noah Fant. Whether it be Evans or someone else in UNI’s secondary, there’s an elevated need for takeaways against an opponent as formidable as Iowa.