UNI Panthers

UNI defense makes the most of changes caused by injuries

23rd-ranked Panthers have taken 'next man up' to heart

Northern Iowa Panthers linebackers Kendrick Suntken (42) and  Rickey Neal Jr. (7) tackle South Dakota State Jackrabbits running back Mikey Daniel (26) during the second half of a game at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls on Saturday, October 10, 2018. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Northern Iowa Panthers linebackers Kendrick Suntken (42) and Rickey Neal Jr. (7) tackle South Dakota State Jackrabbits running back Mikey Daniel (26) during the second half of a game at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls on Saturday, October 10, 2018. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

CEDAR FALLS — Injuries are at the center of Northern Iowa’s defense taking another step forward. After back-to-back solid performances the “next man up” cliche has beared unmistakable results for the Panthers.

Two weeks ago, UNI debuted a 3-3-5 defensive alignment largely due to a rash of injuries within its front seven. Chris Kolarevic (ankle) and Blake Thomas (ankle) missed all and part of UNI’s win over South Dakota, respectively, and with the pair of linebackers out for Saturday’s upset over then-No. 3 South Dakota State, the UNI defensive staff continued to make use of the 3-3-5 while also rotating in its typical 4-2-5.

UNI Coach Mark Farley said Saturday there wasn’t enough depth in either formation to play four quarters of football. Monday, he acknowledged the “unintended consequence” of their injuries have unearthed another effective defense.

“The unintended consequence through the injuries is probably the fact that the more people that are involved, the more team dynamic comes together on that,” Farley said. “I wouldn’t even say it’s a different defense, it’s just a different personnel group. It was a good time to put it in and we’ll use it when it’s at the right time. It just can’t be played against anybody. We have something now in our arsenal that’s been played and practiced.”

As Farley mentioned, with more personnel seeing the field and being a part of the entire gameday effort, the defense has reached another level. UNI’s defensive line was the first level of its defense to regularly make use of depth and through seven games of steady rotation, the group is hitting its stride.

UNI’s defensive line has consistently put pressure on opposing quarterbacks and been stout against the run as the Panthers have won two of their last three games. Farley described Monday how important the defensive line situational rotations have been to his team’s defense, specifically pointing out edge rusher Elerson Smith.

“(Elerson’s) got a good enough get off right now that he’s causing people some problems,” Farley said. “And he’s also a good counter to Rickey (Neal) on the other side. Seth Thomas (had) probably his best game since he’s been at UNI this last particular weekend. (That) probably has a lot to do with the rotation. The fresher they are the better they play.”

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The Panthers offense had built a reputation over the past few weeks of being ahead of the defense. However, after the defense allowed an uncharacteristic 56 points to No. 1 North Dakota State three weeks ago, it has responded with quality outings the past two weeks. Saturday, UNI held one of the FCS’ best offenses nearly 40 points below its season average.

With a trip to Western Illinois (3-4, 2-2) next up at 1 p.m. this Saturday, No. 23 UNI’s defense will again be challenged, specifically by Sean McGuire, a veteran quarterback who orchestrated a comeback win last season at the UNI-Dome.

Farley compared the fifth-year Leathernecks quarterback to North Dakota State QB Easton Stick.

“He’s a tough quarterback. Great competitor,” Farley said. “You can kind of see his personality on the film.”

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