CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa football got a much-needed road win last Saturday against South Dakota, 42-28. The Panthers (3-3, 2-1) checked the boxes of all three keys last week against the Coyotes and it’ll take another 3-for-3 performance to topple No. 3 South Dakota State at 4 p.m. Saturday.
The Jackrabbits (4-1, 2-0) ended UNI’s 2017 season with a 37-22 win in the FCS quarterfinals. Working in the Panthers’ favor this go-around is home-field advantage and a scorching hot Eli Dunne.
Here are three keys to a UNI win against the Jackrabbits:
1. Limit “chunk plays”
SDSU quarterback Taryn Christion lost his two best targets, tight end Dallas Goedert and wide receiver Jake Wieneke, to the NFL after 2017. The loss of those two highly-talented pass catchers has affected the Jackrabbits’ dynamic offense. However, receivers Cade Johnson and Adam Anderson have stepped up and provided their own brand of explosiveness.
Johnson and Anderson are averaging 19.7 and 17.6 yards per catch, respectively. The duo has routinely been able to collect “chunk yardage” against opponents during SDSU’s 4-1 start.
First-year secondary starters Roosevelt Lawrence and Christian Jegen will likely be attacked by Christion and his dynamic receiving duo. Veteran safety A.J. Allen will need to be sound with his pre-snap communication and the UNI defensive line needs to help out the secondary by creating pressure that forces Christion to get rid of the ball before he can make a deep throw to Johnson or Anderson.
2. Take the ball away
Despite Christion’s excellence, he possesses a 2-2 record against UNI. In the two wins, he’s turned the ball over just once. In each of the two losses, he threw an interception. As tight as these games have been the past couple seasons, creating just one extra possession can make the difference.
The Panthers have eight interceptions through six games and after debuting a 3-3-5 defense in last week’s win over South Dakota, Mark Farley held his proverbial cards close to the vest on Monday when asked whether the 3-3-5 would stay or the more typical 4-2-5 alignment would reappear against the Jackrabbits.
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One way or the other, Farley has done his team a favor by putting another defense on tape for Christion and the SDSU offense to prepare for. Creating confusion with multiple fronts could be the key to UNI’s defense creating a game-breaking turnover against the veteran QB.
3. Protect Eli
In UNI’s three wins, quarterback Eli Dunne has been sacked just twice. Of course every quarterback across the country benefits from good protection, but in his third year as a starter, the blueprint is out there among conference foes on how to stall the Panthers offense.
SDSU head coach John Stiegelmeier spoke to that blueprint at his weekly press conference when he stressed the need for his defense to pressure Dunne.
When Dunne got off to his slow start this season, it seemed a productive running game would be necessary to make him viable. Yet after a string of solid performances — the most recent garnering him MVFC Offensive Player of the Week — the Grinnell native has proven he’s capable of taking over a game as long as his jersey stays clean.
As long as Dunne doesn’t face too much pressure, the UNI offense will remain potent enough to pull of the upset of No. 3 South Dakota State.