UNI Panthers

UNI defense has to be ready for Lamar's ground attack in FCS playoffs

Cardinals have stuck to running game all season

Northern Iowa Panthers mascot TC Panther leads the team onto the field for their Missouri Valley Football Conference game at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls on Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Northern Iowa Panthers mascot TC Panther leads the team onto the field for their Missouri Valley Football Conference game at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls on Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

CEDAR FALLS — Given it was 1964 the last time Northern Iowa (6-5) and Lamar (7-4) shared the gridiron, the football offices inside the UNI-Dome are in the midst of long days and short nights leading up to Saturday’s first-round playoff matchup.

The Cardinals bring a formidable running game to Cedar Falls this weekend. Seventy percent of the time, Lamar hands the ball off and its commitment to the run produces 250 yards per game; quarterback Darrel Corbet is the team’s leading rusher. Meanwhile, the Cardinals have three other ball-carriers with more than 500 yards rushing this season.

“I’m very impressed with their style of play,” UNI Coach Mark Farley said. “They really stick to their run game and they’re very aggressive on defense. They went to McNeese and beat them, which is very impressive when you watch it on film.”

While Farley continues to become acquainted with the Cardinals’ option offense, he’s also challenged by his defense’s injuries. Before the season began, linebacker Jake Hartford, a presumed starter, was injured and later declared out for the season. Chris Kolarevic, who starred in Hartford’s place, was lost for the season after week 7. Kendrick Suntken and Blake Thomas were then called upon but now both are dealing with their own injuries.

With options limited — especially after Bryce Flater’s targeting ejection in the second half of Saturday’s win against Missouri State — Farley and his staff have difficult personnel decisions to make before Saturday.

“It’s kind of wait and see (at linebacker),” Farley said. “My hope is that we get Blake Thomas back this week. It appears that we may. We’ve got to wait and see what happens with (Bryce) Flater. We can move some people in there (from) our defense but I don’t know if I want to (at) this stage of the game.”

On the other side of the ball, the Panthers are working to re-establish red-zone efficiency that’s escaped them the past few weeks — in particular, scoring touchdowns once they’re inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.

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Coming off of better red-zone results against Missouri State, a repeat performance could be in store Saturday against the Cardinals. Lamar finished last in the Southland Conference in pass defense, allowing 311.4 yards per game.

“We’re going to have to do a great job in protection,” Farley said. “Your mistakes will be magnified in games from here on out, so we have to clean up the errors in all phases of our game. Turnovers on both sides of the ball will be key.”

Kickoff for Northern-Iowa Lamar is at 4 p.m. Saturday (ESPN+).

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