CEDAR FALLS — One week ago, the Northern Iowa football team was positioned for a top-8 seed and first-round bye in the FCS playoffs, something it has yet to accomplish since the expansion of the field to 24 teams.
After a 37-17 letdown last Saturday in Macomb, Ill., against Western Illinois, the Panthers (4-4, 3-2 MVFC) have transitioned to playing for their playoff lives. Five losses is typically the cutoff for making the playoffs and UNI’s toughest game of the three that remain comes Saturday against No. 14 Illinois State (5-3, 2-3). at 1 p.m. at the UNI-Dome (NBCS Chicago, KCRG 9.2).
“That (defensive) front, they’re very big and physical,” UNI offensive coordinator John Bond said. “Their back end, they’re good. They’re athletic. Anytime you can beat a (FBS) team like they did — they soundly beat Colorado State — so anytime you can do something like that, you know you’re facing a pretty talented football team.”
Part of the Panthers’ struggles through their up-and-down season have most recently been a slow-starting offense. While teams obviously want to be at their best in the second half, UNI’s slow starts have undoubtedly come at a cost.
“We spend a lot of time on our opening plays,” Bond said. “We try to get some formations that we want to see how they’re going to line up (against). It’s a little of a two-edged sword. You’re trying to see what you’re going to get (defensively). Then, also, you’re trying to call good enough plays and execute well enough to get the ball in the end zone.”
At the center of UNI’s problems in last week’s loss to WIU were protection breakdowns and turnovers from quarterback Eli Dunne. Dunne and the UNI offense, despite their slow starts, had been efficient before committing three turnovers and allowing four sacks against the Leathernecks. Illinois State brings the FCS’ No. 15 defense to the UNI-Dome and Bond said they’ve worked on moving past last week’s underwhelming performance.
“We’ve just tried to put (WIU) to bed and learn from our mistakes,” Bond said. “We shot ourselves in the foot a lot. Part of that’s on me. I’ve got to take some responsibility for that. I probably tried to force the issue a little bit too much. Tried to score every play instead of work the ball down and get it in there a little bit. Can’t really dwell on yesterday. We’ve got to move forward.”
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Four losses with three games to play is not unfamiliar territory for Bond and the Panthers, who found themselves in the exact same position last season. Coaches and players will refuse to look past Illinois State, but Bond didn’t dispute the stakes being at their highest, while at the same time saying they’re focused on what’s directly ahead.
“We try to turn over every rock and every leaf humanly possible,” Bond said. “So this week is really no different than any other week as far as trying to do everything we can from a play standpoint to put our guys in the best position to have a chance to make some plays and put the ball in the end zone.”