A Non-Ranked Opponent for No. 13 UNI This Weekend!?
So far this football season, the Panthers have faced the following teams that are currently ranked in the STATS Perform FCS Top 25:
No. 2 North Dakota State
No. 7 Southern Illinois
No. 9 South Dakota State
No. 16 Sacramento State
No. 23 South Dakota
They've won three out of those five games, and easily could have (or maybe should have) taken the other two. They also fell to FBS Iowa State in their first game of the season by a score of 16-10. In my humble opinion, if Theo Day had started, UNI would have won.
They'll have to face the No. 17 Missouri State Bears on November 13 as well. It's safe to say the Missouri Valley Football Conference is absolutely loaded.
Well, maybe other than Illinois State. The Redbirds, who are traditionally another top program in the country, are in the middle of a down season. They currently hold a 3-5 overall record with a 1-4 record in the MVFC. Their only win in conference came two weeks ago against South Dakota in the DakotaDome by a score of 20-14, which was a total fluke. The Coyotes lost their starting quarterback to injury during the game.
The Redbirds followed that with a 38-31 loss last week to Western Illinois, who's currently 2-7.
This should be a victory for the Panthers, but there will be several points of emphasis to focus on.
The Illinois State Running Game
ISU is a team that's been known to put the majority of their offensive load on one running back. See James Robinson, who racked up 1899 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns on the ground in 2019 as a senior with the Redbirds. In 2018 it was 1290 yards and 12 scores.
Right now, their workhorse back is Cole Mueller. The former Kanas Jayhawk commit has put up 737 rushing yards and six TDs through eight games. That includes 337 yards and four scores over the last two weeks.
If the Panthers track-record so far has shown what they'll do on Saturday, UNI should be just fine. They currently rank 13th in the country after facing teams like South Dakota State and North Dakota State, who are among the best in the FCS on the ground.
Run Up the Score
The UNI offense hasn't exactly been clicking, despite their last few wins being so momentous.
In the victory last week over Southern Illinois, quarterback Theo Day passed for just 103 yards, completing 14 of his 26 passes and throwing two picks. Theo is much better than that stat line shows. Having injuries to Isaiah Weston and Quan Hampton must have hurt the Panthers rhythm offensively, but the turnovers can't continue to happen.
The offense also needs to finish when they end up in the endzone. A fumble forced by Devin Rice and recovered by Caden Houghtelling (pictured above) and penalty resulted in UNI taking over on the 5-yard line last week against SIU -- multiple penalties and mishaps ensued, and the purple and gold had to settle for a field goal.
Illinois State currently ranks 39th in pass defense, 51st in points allowed per game, and 65th in run defense nationally.
Now is the time to get the offense in-sync -- when the Panthers will face the least resistance. Put the hammer down and get into a groove. UNI will need it next week against Missouri St. and in the playoffs.
Including Weston and Hampton, there have been a boat-load of injuries the Panthers have faced already this year. Defensive lineman Brawntae Wells is out for the year, we haven't seen wide receiver Logan Wolf in weeks, linebacker Spencer Cuvelier has missed the last two games, defensive back Omar Brown is battling an injury, offensive lineman Matthew Vander Slice has missed multiple games, and another lineman, Justin Peine went down with a nasty lower leg injury last week.
As the regular season comes to a close, the Panthers who are available need to stay that way. Those who can come back need to. Depth is too important come playoff time, and UNI is fairly short in that department already.
No more booboos, Panthers. Okay? NO MORE.
It should be a simple victory for the purple and gold this weekend. As long as the Cats don't get solely focused on the coming playoffs (basically like I did here), then it should be another game added to the win column.
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Toby Keith at Xtream Arena in Coralville