CEDAR FALLS — After being one of three six-win teams to receive an at-large bid to the FCS playoffs, then being the only to advance to the second round, Northern Iowa’s players are making sure they enjoy the moments that come with being one of only 16 teams still playing.
“It’s a blessing right now to be playing football in (the) end of November and close to December, it’s a blessing,” junior receiver Jaylin James said. “Thankful for the opportunities, especially getting to go out to California and play UC Davis, a good team.”
Big Sky champion UC Davis and its prolific offense stands between UNI and a quarterfinals appearance. The Aggies rank seventh nationally in total offense (495.5 ypg) and sixth in scoring (42.2 ppg).
Quarterback Jake Meier and receiver Keelan Doss, the linchpins of the Aggie offense, recently received first-team All-Big Sky honors. Slowing down Meier and Doss will be important, but a more well-rounded performance by UNI’s offense, particularly quarterback Eli Dunne, may quickly prove itself as a necessity Saturday.
“I think the biggest thing is getting Eli in a rhythm,” acting play-caller and former UC Davis assistant Pat McCann said. “To get Eli in a rhythm we’ve got to catch the ball. I think that was part of the problem last week, just making sure that we’re completing footballs.”
Dunne’s ability to complete more than the eight passes he did a week ago in a 16-13 first-round win over Lamar goes well beyond what he can control. Coming off a game where he faced consistent pressure, sophomore offensive lineman Spencer Brown said better communication will be necessary to allow Dunne to settle in.
“Communication is definitely key,” Brown said. “(Offensive line) Coach (Ryan) Clanton told us that we only messed up maybe three times (against Lamar) but in the playoffs every single play counts. Communication for the O-line is a big thing for us in getting our calls right.”
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The Panthers offense has morphed into a run-first unit as the season has worn on. Marcus Weymiller and Trevor Allen have the ability to get first downs and that would be key to keeping the Aggies offense off the field. Given the recent development of McCann taking over play-calling duties for an absent John Bond, it’d be easy to think he would want to turn Dunne loose and play shootout football with UC Davis. However, the former UC Davis assistant said his play-calling has earned him a nickname contrary to common thought.
“The joke is Coach Clanton calls me ‘Fat Pat’ because I think like an offensive lineman,” McCann said. “I want to run the ball and that’s one of those things that everybody’s like, ‘you’re the skinniest wide receivers coach that wants to run the ball in the country.’”
Northern Iowa (7-5) and UC Davis (9-2) kick off Saturday at 6 p.m. CT (streaming on ESPN3).