CEDAR FALLS — After a disappointing 37-17 loss to Western Illinois last week, Northern Iowa football enters “playoff mode” for its remaining three weeks. Barring a surprise from the FCS Playoff committee the Panthers must win out to qualify for the 24-team field.
With No. 14 Illinois State (5-3, 2-3) visiting the UNI-Dome Saturday the Panthers (4-4, 3-2) face the toughest test of their three remaining games.
Here are three keys to a UNI win against Illinois State:
1. Stay ahead of the chains
This key falls under the umbrella of something any coaching staff makes a priority each game. Only the most dynamic offenses are capable of overcoming being behind the chains, and while the Panthers have explosiveness, they havne’t proven to be dynamic enough to overcome penalties, sacks and broken plays that create second and third-and-longs.
A considerable part of what will go into this key is addressed within key no. 2, but committing to the running game won’t be a cure-all. The Panthers cannot have Eli Dunne turn around and hand off to Marcus Weymiller and Trevor Allen 40-plus times and expect a win against Illinois State.
Dunne will need to make winning plays with his arm to topple the Redbirds and that will require protection from his offensive line that wasn’t there a week ago against Western Illinois.
2. Commit to the run
While the Panthers have shown an ability to win games through the air, they’re unquestionably better when a productive running game accompanies their aerial attack.
Weymiller had a number of productive runs in the first half of last week’s loss to Western Illinois, but carried the ball only 16 times despite averaging 6 yards per attempt.
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
After offensive coordinator John Bond told The Gazette this week that he felt he “tried to score every play instead of work the ball down (field) and get it in there a little bit,” it seems like the writing is on the wall for a renewed commitment to the running game.
Factor in the turnovers and sacks that wrecked a number of the offense’s drives against the Leathernecks and there’s too many reasons not to have a stubborn commitment to the run against the Redbirds’ 15th-ranked defense.
3. Make Illinois State One-Dimensional
Specifically, make Illinois State a one-dimensional passing offense.
The Redbirds become dangerous through the air only once their running game gets going, outrushing opponents by nearly 100 yards per game this season.
Redbirds starting quarterback Brady Davis has only thrown three interceptions but has a lackluster 56 percent completion rate to his name. If Davis is forced to throw 30-plus times it’s the beginnings of a winning recipe for UNI.
After a few weeks of regularly rotating defensive alignments, it shouldn’t be a surprise if the Panthers consistently put eight in the box and dare Davis and the Redbirds to beat them through the air