CEDAR FALLS — Saturday’s matchup at the UNI-Dome between 13th-ranked Northern Iowa (2-2) and 18th-ranked Youngstown State (4-0) is the Panthers’ homecoming game.
Last season UNI lost 31-10 at Youngstown State, totaling only 192 yards of offense. Working in the Panthers’ favor this year is Mark Farley’s undefeated home record against YSU (10-0).
The Penguins finished 4-7 last year and although they are undefeated this season, their strength of schedule is ranked 112 spots behind UNI’s.
Here are three things to watch for in Saturday’s game.
1. Starting fast and staying ahead of the chains.
In 13 first-quarter drives this season the Panthers have gained 11 first downs, scored one touchdown and one field goal while having 15 downs of 10 yards or longer to gain.
Meanwhile, Youngstown State has scored 34 points through its four first quarters.
After last week’s 29-17 loss at then fifth-ranked Weber State (2-2), UNI senior offensive lineman Jackson Scott-Brown addressed the slow starts.
“It was just kind of like (Idaho State) with some of the bad things from the very first snap. That’s just something that it comes down to us,” Scott-Brown said. “The coaches can’t get on us anymore. We need to be able to say, ‘hey, everyone needs to worry about their job.’ And I think we ended up doing that in the second half, but now it’s just — we have to focus on (our starts).”
2. Prolific Penguins running game
Youngstown State’s 296.3 rushing yards per game is tops in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. Four Penguins have at least 28 attempts this season and all four are averaging over 49 yards per game. Senior Joe Alessi leads YSU in rushing with 358 yards and three touchdowns and is coming off a 14-carry, 146-yard, one-touchdown performance in a 45-10 win over Robert Morris last week.
UNI’s rushing defense sits fourth in the MVFC, allowing 105.2 yards per game. If previous games are an indicator, the Panthers will likely utilize their 4-2-5 defense to limit the Penguins ground game. It’s possible that Austin Evans — who started the last two games at nickelback — could be substituted for on obvious running downs in favor of an extra linebacker.
3. Chris Kolarevic’s impact
Linebacker Chris Kolarevic’s return last week after a year-long rehab from a foot injury could allow Spencer Cuvelier — who Kolarevic replaced — to get back on the field situationally against the run-heavy Penguins.
Kolarevic’s quickness and first-step ability quickly became evident in last week’s loss, however Cuvelier has proven himself as a productive run-stopping linebacker, leading UNI with 43 tackles.
UNI vs. Youngstown State
Time: 4 p.m. CT
TV: KCRG 9.2, NBCS Chicago
Watch online: ESPN3
Radio: KGYM-AM 1600
Listen online: TuneIn
Line: UNI -7
Prediction: UNI 24 Youngstown State 17
The Panthers stay ahead of the chains by being stubborn with the run and dipping back into their short passing game that was effective week 1 at Iowa State. The defense occasionally struggles with the running game, but does enough to hold on for a win.