CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa’s road game at South Dakota State on Saturday is quite possibly its highest-stakes regular season game of the decade.
The last time UNI (7-3, 5-1) had three or fewer losses this late in a season was 2011, two years before the FCS playoffs expanded from 16 to 24 teams.
The fourth-ranked Panthers have made the playoffs four times since 2011, but UNI Coach Mark Farley is experiencing a multitude of emotions heading into Saturday’s Missouri Valley Football Conference tilt against the No. 8 Jackrabbits (7-3, 4-2).
“It feels great (to be No. 4),” Farley said. “We’re getting rewarded a little bit for what we’ve done, so that phase you feel great about. But the other feeling you have is a very guarded one because there’s still a lot of work to do. There’s a big game this weekend that will change a lot of things as well.”
Looking back to the fall, the Panthers entered camp with a four-way quarterback competition and multiple question marks on a defense that would be forced to break in a number of inexperienced players.
Fast forward three months and UNI is positioned to achieve a first-round playoff bye, there’s been no controversy at QB after Will McElvain was named the starter before the season opener and its defense is among the FCS’ best.
“They’ve come a long way and that’s what makes you feel good,” Farley said of his team. “Number one, start with the defense. That was probably our biggest question. Now we sit as one of the better defenses in the league and in the country. We’ve really done a great job offensively because we’ve weathered a lot of injuries and still are productive.”
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
A large part of UNI’s success on offense has been McElvain’s dynamic playmaking and efficient 18 touchdowns to just three interceptions. Sophomore receiver Isaiah Weston has played the biggest role in helping McElvain find success in his first season as starter with an astronomical 25.1 yards per catch average, 982 yards receiving and MVFC-leading 10 touchdowns.
However, the Panthers may be without Weston’s services on Saturday. The sophomore is questionable with a lower-body injury. Farley told The Gazette that Weston’s condition Wednesday morning “wasn’t favorable,” but added he would be getting another opinion Thursday.
“I wouldn’t say it’s out of the question either,” Farley said. “If we’re fortunate enough to get Isaiah Weston, trust me, we’ll use him.”
With or without Weston, a win Saturday followed by taking care of a one-win Western Illinois team to wrap up the regular season next Saturday will give the Panthers the playoff bye they covet along with home-field advantage.
“It’s advantageous because, one, you get a week to heal,” Farley said. “But along with that, if you’re getting a first-round bye, you’re probably high enough ranked that you’re also getting the home field advantage throughout many of the games. It’s a double-edged win. (We’ve) just got to win this game in front of us right now and if we can do that we can start talking about playing in the Dome.”