The sports calendar has officially turned to dead. In our attempts to revive it, we’ll look ahead to each of the Iowa Hawkeyes’ opponents this fall to see what might be in store. In week 3, it’s the Northern Iowa Panthers!
The Hawkeyes hold a commanding lead in the all-time series with UNI, as you might expect between an FBS and FCS pairing. In 17 all-time meetings, Iowa holds a 16-1 record against the Panthers. The lone loss to UNI came on November 5th, 1898. Well, technically that’s not true. The loss back in 1898 came at the hands of the Iowa State Normal School Normals (not to be confused with the other Iowa State, which is of course, NOT normal).
That was 120 years and three official name changes ago (UNI only became the UNI Panthers in 1967. They were the Iowa State Normal School Normals from 1876-1909, the Iowa State Teachers College Tutors and later Panthers from 1909-1961 and the State College of Iowa Panthers from 1961-1967.)
Like Kirk Ferentz, UNI’s Mark Farley is quite tenured, having coached the Panthers since 2001. He’s obviously never been able to beat the Hawkeyes, going 0-4 during his time in Cedar Falls. Iowa did not face UNI in the Ferentz era before the arrival of Farley.
The Panthers and Hawkeyes last faced off in 2014 when Iowa beat UNI 31-23. Other recent meetings include a 27-16 Iowa victory in Iowa City in 2012, the infamous 17-16 win on a blocked field goal (x2) in 2009 and a 45-21 win by the Hawkeyes in 2005.
The Panthers went a modest 8-5 last season. They finished 6-2 in the Missouri Valley Conference, good enough for 3rd behind the Dakota States North and South respectively. They were knocked out of the FCS playoffs in the second round by the aforementioned South Dakota State. In their lone matchup with an FBS opponent, UNI was defeated 42-24 by Iowa State in Ames.
(All stats via unipanthers.com unless otherwise noted)
In a modest (by UNI standards) season where the Panthers finished third in the conference, UNI’s offense was every bit as modest. The Panthers finished 6th in the conference in points per game at 29.4 and 9th in total offense with 354.7 yards per game, ahead of only Indiana State.
The offense was fairly balanced a year ago, running 54.8% of the time, though they had more success through the air than on the ground. As a team, UNI rushed for 1,548 yards on 495 carries while throwing for 3,063 yards on 408 attempts. Their primary set is 11 personnel (1 tight end, 1 RB and 3 WRs) out of the shotgun, but they do mix things up a bit.
The Panthers return their leading rusher in senior-to-be Marcus Weymiller, who was Honorable Mention All-Missouri Valley a season ago. He ran for 809 yards on 200 carries, averaging 4 yards per carry and 81 yards per game as a junior. Look for those numbers to go up this year with a full workload.
Weymiller isn’t a huge back at 5’10” and 204 pounds, but he has solid vision and can hit the hole. He’s what you might expect from a UNI running back not named David Johnson. He has good, not great speed, and OK elusiveness with the ability to break some arm tackles, but he isn’t running people over. If you give him space, he can make you pay, but he isn’t creating a ton of his own. Look for him to run primarily out of the base shotgun sets where natural running lanes open up and he has a chance to try to get outside. He has also shown himself to be quite good out of the wildcat.
Three other backs garnered at least 50 carries last season for the Panthers and two of them are returning. Trevor Allen, who is also the leading pass-catcher out of the backfield, and J’Veyon Browning will spell Weymiller. Allen began last year as the starter and has home run ability.
In the passing game, it’s a bit of a mixed bag for the Panthers. They return their senior QB, Eli Dunne, who had a very good junior season. Dunne threw for 2,704 yards on 358 attempts, connecting for 26 TDs - the same number as Iowa’s Nate Stanley. Dunne did, however, throw for more INTs, 11 in total.
In 2018, Dunne will be forced to go to work without his top target from a season ago. The Panthers lost 1st Team All-Missouri Valley WR Daurice Fountain, who led the team in every receiving category with 943 receiving yards and 12 TDs on 66 catches. He’ll be remembered as one of the best receivers in UNI history after being selected by the Indianapolis Colts in last year’s NFL Draft and will be impossible to replace.
Dunne will also be taking snaps from someone new as 2nd Team All-Missouri Valley center Lee Carhart graduated. On the plusside, Dunne will get his second-leading receiver back in senior TE Briley Moore, who was Honorable Mention All-Missouri Valley a year ago.
The Panthers also return their 3rd and 4th options in the passing game with a pair of big WRs. Isaiah Weston hauled in 22 catches for 380 yards and 5 TDs a season ago. At 6’4” and 207 pounds, who could present a matchup problem for the Hawkeyes as they look to replace Josh Jackson in the secondary. Weston is joined by Jaylin James, another big WR at 6’3”, 202 lbs, who caught 33 balls for 338 yards and a score last year.
As far as skill set, Dunne is pretty talented. He’s a pocket passer with good size at 6’5” and 238 pounds. He show’s pretty good vision and does a solid job of going through his progressions when he has time. His arm strength is adequate and he can hit the home run when it’s there.
While Dunne is a good passer, he’s not much of a running threat. He can be elusive and buy time when pressured. However, he can also be thrown off his reads when forced to move and will make mistakes as evidenced by those 11 INTs.
On the whole, look for UNI to try to test the new guys on the Iowa defense by getting their big receivers matched up on Iowa’s corners and making a fresh crop of linebackers find Weymiller and Allen out of the backfield or cover a receiver in space. The defensive line should be able to hold their own in the run game against an FCS offensive line breaking in a new coach and three new starters. Iowa should be able to create pressure up front in the passing game to alleviate concerns on the outside and the strength of the safety group should let the defense take some chances.
Advantage: Iowa defense.
Much like the offense, Northern Iowa’s defense was pretty middle of the road in the Missouri Valley a season ago. The unit finished 5th in total defense, giving up 360.9 yards per game. They were also 5th in scoring defense, giving up 23.6 points per game.
Where the unit really shined was in the turnover department. UNI was second in the Valley in interceptions, forcing 21, including 3 returned for touchdowns. The Panthers also recorded 27 sacks (compare to Iowa’s 29 a season ago).
Unfortunately for Northern Iowa, they are lost a ton of talent. Up front, 1st Team All-Missouri Valley defensive tackle Adam Reth is gone. Likewise, 1st Team All-Missouri Valley LB and the team’s leading tackler Jared Farley has moved on. In the secondary, the Panthers lose 1st team All-Missouri Valley corner Elizah Campbell and former Fresno State transfer Malcolm Washington, who was Honorable Mention All-Missouri Valley. Campbell led the team with 5 interceptions and is now with the Cleveland Browns
Look for Brian Ferentz and the Iowa offense to attack the UNI defense breaking in a pair of new starting corners. Iowa’s talent at WR is a question mark, but Ihmir Smith-Marsette should be able to find his way behind this secondary and Nick Easley’s sure hands may be able to find separation against some new faces.
Moreover, the weapons at Nate Stanley’s disposal with TEs Noah Fant and TJ Hockenson should prove too much for the safeties or linebackers of UNI. Expect Brian Ferentz to test the defensive line with Toren Young, Ivory Kelly-Martin and Mekhi Sargent to set up big plays from the TEs and WRs against this secondary.
Advantage: Iowa Offense
We’ve seen far too many close calls with inferior opponents in the Kirk Ferentz era. Hawkeye fans need look no further than 9 years ago for an example of what can happen to even really good Iowa teams against the Panthers.
This one has the makings of a potential trap game, falling the week after a heated rivalry game with Iowa State, which should be very good, and a week before the Hawkeyes face off with Wisconsin in what could be the deciding game in the quest for the Big Ten West divisional title.
But alas, this is not a game Iowa should lose. The Hawkeyes should have the advantage on both offense and defense. Look for the defense to pressure UNI QB Eli Dunne into mistakes while the offense looks to lean on the run game and make the Panthers pay with big plays to the TEs. Crazier things have happened. but this one looks like an Iowa victory.