CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa football’s 37-17 loss Saturday to Western Illinois was a classic game of “what could have been.”
Entering Saturday’s tilt, the Panthers had been perfect in more than 20 trips to the red zone, leading the FCS in the category. UNI (4-4, 3-2 MVFC) made it into the red zone on its first two possessions Saturday and uncharacteristically came away with just three points.
“Offensively, we’ve got to take advantage of opportunities when we have them,” said assistant head coach D.J. Vokolek, who was filling in for head coach Mark Farley during UNI’s weekly media day. “I know offensively we’ve been very good in the red zone and we’ve taken advantage of those opportunities. Unfortunately last Saturday that didn’t happen for us.”
Saturday’s loss represented a regression in red-zone efficiency, as well as quarterback Eli Dunne’s efficiency. The senior had not thrown an interception in his previous two games, and had thrown just two all season, but was intercepted twice and fumbled once in the loss to WIU.
UNI’s missed opportunities and errors weren’t exclusive to offense. A week after holding then-No. 3 South Dakota State to 9 points, UNI gave up 37 to the Leathernecks. Dig deeper into those 37 points and find a number of explosive plays of 20 or more yards allowed.
“Some of the errors I know we made defensively (were) taking proper angles in our pursuit,” Vokolek said. “We can correct those things. We’ve watched it. We’ve addressed it. Our kids understand it.”
The loss effectively puts the Panthers into “playoff mode” with three games remaining. Vokolek said Sunday’s team meeting was good and he doesn’t think staff and players are feeling additional pressure.
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“I think as players and coaches we don’t worry about (playoffs),” Vokolek said. “We can’t worry about that. I don’t think we can approach it that way. We’ve just got to have the approach that we’ve got a football game this Saturday and we’ve got to go take care of business and we’ll move on to the next one.”
No. 11 Illinois State (5-3, 2-3) is up next for UNI. The Redbirds are coming off a 38-28 loss to No. 7 South Dakota State and still are aiming for a top-eight seed and first round playoff bye. Due to schedule rotation, the Panthers haven’t played Illinois State the past two seasons.
“We’re catching an awfully good football team (Saturday),” Vokolek said. “You watch them offensively (and) they’re big up front. They’ve got a stable of great (running) backs that have good size, good speed. They’re a high-powered offense. They can score a lot of points. They’re multiple with what they do defensively. I’m sure we’re going to get (their) best.”