CEDAR FALLS — It’s finally game week for Northern Iowa football.
The calendar may show February, but after a 433-day layoff between games, the No. 3-ranked Panthers will face one of their toughest tests of the spring season this Friday night against No. 5 South Dakota State (7 p.m., ESPN+).
The teams split a pair of games in 2019, with UNI losing 38-7 late in the regular season, before returning to Brookings, S.D., less than a month later for a dramatic 13-10 second-round playoff win.
Both teams have changed plenty since those two games. Most notably for South Dakota State is the return of its original 2019 starting quarterback, J’Bore Gibbs. Gibbs lost his 2019 season to injury well before the Jackrabbits played the Panthers, but established himself in only six starts, including a near upset of Minnesota.
“He’s an exceptional player,” UNI coach Mark Farley said. “He has all the things that make it difficult because you have quarterback running capability, you have a good passer as well and then you have the size to go with it.”
Farley knows returning running back Pierre Strong Jr. will continue to be a focal point for John Stiegelmeier’s offense. The redshirt junior ball-carrier is coming off consecutive seasons of more than 1,000 yards rushing.
“That’s a challenge that we’re going to have to overcome, because you can only (tackle) so much in practice,” Farley said. “How we tackle and how we play will be something to watch early because it’s a heck of a running back. He’s got size and strength now and he’s been a starter since he was a freshman.”
While most of UNI’s starting lineup can be projected, its defensive backfield remains unsettled.
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Asked on Monday who would start at nickel and both safety spots, Farley talked around the question and once again made note of the group’s depth.
Omar Brown and Austin Evans are expected to start at cornerback. Meanwhile, a trio of Korby Sander, Benny Sapp III, DeMarcus Governor, Spencer Perry, Jevon Brekke, Stefan Black II and Isaiah Nimmers could start or see time at safety or nickel.
“Yes, we do have some good players there. We’ll see how they all fit together,” Farley said. “We have the ability to play guys at different spots based off the people that we play.”
Having finally reached game week of its postponed 2020 season it’s fair to say these Panthers are eager to play. So much so that Farley said they’ll need to make sure players aren’t letting their excitement sap their energy.
“We’re going to have to control their energy, because they want to play,” Farley said. “Then we’re going to have to adapt to the speed of the game as it unfolds, because we haven’t played in a while. Then we’re going to have to sustain and make adjustments on the sidelines that will factor in with how we finish.”