UNI Panthers

UNI football at Youngstown State: 3 keys to the game

Scoring first is a recipe for success for quarterback Eli Dunne and Northern Iowa against Youngstown State. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Scoring first is a recipe for success for quarterback Eli Dunne and Northern Iowa against Youngstown State. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

CEDAR FALLS — Two wins stand between Northern Iowa and the FCS Playoffs. After defeating then-No. 14 Illinois State a week ago, the 24th-ranked Panthers (5-4, 4-2 MVFC) travel to Ohio to take on Youngstown State at 11 a.m. Saturday.

On paper, the Penguins (3-6, 2-4) looked like an easy win a week ago, but YSU took No. 1 North Dakota State to the brink last week, losing 17-7.

Here are three keys to a UNI win against Youngstown State:

1. Score first

In five of its six losses, Youngstown State has failed to score first.

Head coach Bo Pelini has paired his stout defenses with a run-first offense since taking the reins in 2015 and that combination has provided a blueprint for its opponents. Simply put, the Penguins are not equipped to come from behind and win.

Quarterback Montgomery VanGorder completes just 54 percent of his passes and has thrown eight interceptions in eight starts.

Getting an early lead and forcing the Penguins to win through the air rather than on the ground should be the No. 1 key in what is another must-win game for the Panthers.

2. Win with special teams

UNI’s defense arguably put forth its best game in last Saturday’s 26-16 win over Illinois State, keeping the Redbirds from crossing midfield for 11 consecutive possessions. Not far behind the Panthers defense was an outstanding special teams performance.

Austin Errthum knocked in all four of his field-goal attempts and Michael Kuntz pinned the Redbirds deep in their own territory on four of his five punts.

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Given Youngstown State’s defense-first philosophy that places an emphasis on clock control and the running game, field position is likely to be key. Especially if the Panthers are unable to score first. Errthum may need to be perfect again on three or four field goals, and Kuntz’s ability to force the Penguins to drive 80 yards or longer to score could prove to be the difference.

3. Feed the playmakers

Eli Dunne’s distribution of the ball to different pass catchers has kept opposing defenses from zeroing in on one or two skill players. That distribution has certainly had its benefits, but in a game with stakes as high as Saturday’s, it’s key that Dunne finds a way to get the ball to his best playmakers.

Deion McShane and Briley Moore have proven themselves as the most explosive and reliable playmakers, respectively. Moore could be the answer to a couple weeks worth of red-zone struggles while McShane is capable of taking a play designed to move the chains for a score.

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