116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR FALLS — After having its game last Friday against South Dakota canceled due to COVID-19 protocols, No. 13 Northern Iowa (3-3) hosts No. 1 North Dakota State (4-1) on Saturday for its spring season finale.
Picked first in the Missouri Valley Football Conference’s preseason poll, the Bison were upset in week 2, 38-14, by Southern Illinois. Since the upset, NDSU has won three straight, most recently defeating then-No. 2 North Dakota, 34-13.
UNI is 4-9 against NDSU since it entered the MVFC in 2008 and has lost six straight against the defending champions. The Panthers are out of the playoff picture, so beating their top-ranked rivals and spoiling their playoff seed is all that’s on the line in this particular matchup.
Here’s three keys for UNI against NDSU:
1. YAC-ity, YAC
UNI’s win at Western Illinois two weeks ago was catapulted by a simple play-action pass to Isaiah Weston in the flat on the game’s first play. Watching Weston run 70 of the play’s 75 yards shined a light on how the Panthers can lift their struggling passing game with simple concepts deemed “old school” by some.
Bubble screens to wideouts, rub routes, halfback screens and other basic concepts shouldn’t go overlooked against NDSU, especially with quarterback Will McElvain making his first start in 27 days.
Blocking and block-shedding define this matchup, both in the trenches and on the perimeter. A good block on one of these plays by a skill player could be the difference in the game’s result.
2. Create passing downs
UNI and NDSU’s defenses are ranked first and second, respectively, in the MVFC. The Panthers are allowing just 102.2 rushing and 180 passing yards per game, but will be tested by the Bison’s run game, which ranks fifth in the FCS at 237.7 yards per game.
Being aggressive with run blitzes and heavy fronts on early downs seems like a risk worth taking against the run-heavy Bison, especially as they continue to seek more production from the quarterback position with Zeb Noland and Cam Miller continuing to share reps.
Creating more passing downs for NDSU — which ranks 66th in the FCS in passing efficiency — would go a long way toward an upset.
3. Field position prowess
A rivalry game between No. 13 and No. 1 seems like it would be defined by something more appealing than field position, but the two programs are throwbacks defined by their defensive prowess rather than new-age, progressive offenses.
A large part of NDSU’s separation from the rest of the FCS has been stellar special-teams play the past decade. Each time these games have been close, the Bison have pulled away with the help of field position.
Avoiding reckless play-calling and kicking more quality punts will go a long way for either team’s chances at winning.
UNI vs. North Dakota State
Kickoff time: 4 p.m. (CT)
Line: UNI +8.5
Live stream: ESPN+