CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa’s top-10 matchup in Normal, Ill., against Illinois State (6-2, 3-1) Saturday is a must-win to keep hopes alive of a top-8 seed and a first round bye in the 24-team FCS Playoffs.
No. 10 UNI (5-3, 3-1) won last season’s game against the Redbirds 26-16, but the Panthers have dropped four of their last six against Illinois State.
The seventh-ranked Redbirds are coming off a 24-7 win over Indiana State and have won their last three games.
Here are three things to watch for in Saturday’s game.
1. Homefield advantage
The home team has become a clear favorite in the series’ recent history. Illinois State has won its last three games against UNI at Hancock Field
“I think we’ve all had our share of wins at home, but winning on the road is the hard part, of course, when you’ve got two equal teams on the field and two top-10 teams,” UNI Coach Mark Farley said. “You’ve got to find a way to make some plays. You’re going to have to break a tackle, you’re going to have to do something besides just playing the game. This week you’re going to have to find a way to make something happen because the advantage is (theirs) getting the home game.”
2. Weston’s World
Illinois State defensive backs Devin Taylor and Luther Kirk are regarded around the Missouri Valley Football Conference as two of the best at their position.
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With Isaiah Weston entering Saturday’s game with an MVFC-leading 856 yards receiving, it’ll be worth watching what the Redbirds put together to stop UNI’s star receiver.
“They’ve got a really good defense,” Farley said. “They lead the country in sacks. A lot has to do with their front four, but also has a lot to do with their coverage.”
3. Stop the run, win the game?
Illinois State running back James Robinson leads the MVFC with 115.5 rushing yards per game. Robinson has been the Redbirds’ most consistent contributor on offense and was looked toward even more this past month after wide receivers Taylor Grimes and Andrew Edgar were lost for the season in late September.
In last season’s win, UNI limited Robinson to 40 yards on 16 carries.
“We had a good (game) last year, but this is a whole different setting when you go to Illinois State,” Farley said. “I believe they have a new offensive coordinator. (They’re) more into his makeup with what he does with running backs and how he rushes the football maybe than what they were trying to do last year.”
UNI at Illinois State
TV: NBC Sports Chicago
Watch online: ESPN+
Radio: KGYM-AM 1600
Listen online: TuneIn
Line: UNI -1.5
Prediction: UNI 24 Illinois State 21
UNI quarterback Will McElvain, Weston, a stingy defense and kicker Matthew Cook’s right leg do just enough to snap a three-game skid in Normal and give UNI its first win against a ranked opponent this season.