As we countdown the days and weeks until the beginning of the Iowa football season, we’ll be previewing each of Iowa’s opponents in 2020. While the season may seem far in the distant, we’re currently 12 weeks from our first game week of the year.
First up in our series of previews is Iowa’s season opening opponent, the UNI Panthers.
Northern Iowa Panthers
2019 Record: 10-5 (6-2), 2nd MVFC
The 2019 UNI Panthers had quite the season, finishing 10-5 on the year. The Panthers went 6-2 in the Missouri Valley, finishing second in the conference behind only eventual national champion North Dakota State. UNI ran the table at home with its five losses all coming on the road. After a painful triple OT 29-26 loss in Ames to start the year, the Panthers took down Southern Utah and Idaho State before losing their final non-conference game at Weber State.
In conference play, the Panthers’ only losses came at North Dakota State and South Dakota State. UNI was able to avenge that 38-7 loss at the hands of the Jackrabbits by knocking SDSU out of the FCS Playoffs with a 13-10 win to advance to the FCS Quarterfinals. There, UNI would fall 17-0 to James Madison to end their season.
The list of departures from last year’s quarter final team is rather limited. The most notable is likely leading rusher Trevor Allen, who graduated this spring. Allen finished the season with 643 rushing yards and 6 TDs on 178 carries for a 3.6 ypc average. While the numbers aren’t staggering, consider that Allen was plagued by a slew of injuries to both his upper and lower body throughout the year.
Elsewhere, the Panthers also lose tight end Briley Moore who tallied 1,116 yards on 83 catches during his UNI career. Moore is transferring to Kansas State under former UNI assistant Chris Kleiman. Hawkeye fans will remember Moore from his touchdown catch in a 38-7 Iowa win over the Panthers back in 2018.
Outside of the two offensive weapons, the only other notable departure from UNI’s offense in 2019 was left guard Jackson Scott-Brown. Scott-Brown had started in 48 consecutive games for the Panthers and was a cog in the middle of that line.
On defense, UNI loses just three starters in defensive end Seth Thomas, cornerback Roosevelt Lawrence and safety Christian Jegen. The defensive backs are the most notable as Jegen was second on the team with 108 tackles. He also added four interceptions in 2019. Lawrence had a pair of interceptions to go along with a sack and 62 tackles.
Perhaps the biggest addition for the Panthers in 2020 is the return of a former starter. Korby Sander was slated to be an impact player in 2019 before a season-ending knee injury last spring. In 2018, he had 93 tackles and 3 interceptions while spending time at nickel and safety. He’s a likely candidate to replace Jegen.
As UNI looks to replace the departed Moore, they bring in a graduate transfer tight end in Kyle Fourtenbary of Western Kentucky. At WKU, Fourtenbary tallied 506 yards and 3 TDs on 53 receptions over three years.
The Panthers also added weapons at receiver in the form of Kansas transfer Qam Hampton and JUCO product Kenden Robinson Jr., who had 746 yards and 9 TDs on 50 catches at City College of San Francisco.
In terms of new recruits, UNI signed a class of 18 prospects. Atop the list were a pair of former 3-star Kansas commits in RB Jaylin Richardson and QB Da’Vonshai Harden, who had 2,299 total yards while leading Topeka to the Class 6A semifinals.
In terms of key returners, the list is long. It starts at QB, where the Panthers return starter Will McElvain who threw for 2,778 yards and 20 TDs with 7 INTs on 203 of 382 passing (53%) in 2019. He also added 372 yards on the ground.
McElvain will have his top target returning as well. 6’4”, 210 pound Isaiah Weston became UNI’s first 1,000 yard receiver since Eddie Berlin did it in 2000 when he racked up 1,053 yards and 10 TDs in 10 games in 2019 after missing all of 2018 with a torn ACL.
The Panther QB should have plenty of time in the pocket as well as UNI returns four of five starters along the line. That includes senior right tackle Spencer Brown, junior left tackle Trevor Penning, junior center Mason Neisen and senior right guard Nick Ellis who have combined for 55 starts.
On the defensive side of the ball, there is also a lot returning. The Panthers return three of four starters along the defensive line, all three linebackers and two of four defensive backs.
The most prominent returner is third-team FCS All-American defensive end Elerson Smith. In 2019, Smith led the MVFC with 14 sacks, third most in all FCS.
In the secondary, UNI returns safety Xavior Williams, corner Omar Brown and nickel Austin Evans from a group that led the MVFC with 19 interceptions and three TDs.
At linebacker, the Panthers have everyone back, led by second-team all MVFC LB Chris Kolarevic, as well as Spencer Cuvelier, who totaled 88 tackles in 10 games in 2019.
Heading into 2020, the Panthers look to have another successful season. While it’s difficult to call for an MVFC title as long as North Dakota State is around, this unit has the potential to make a run. While Matt Entz was excellent in first year since Chris Kleiman departed for Manhattan, the time is now for UNI to take their shot at knocking off the champs.
To do that, they’ll need to improve on the ground. In 2019, UNI rushed for just 1,663 yards and 13 touchdowns, averaging only 3.1 ypc. In their season-ending loss to James Madison, the Panthers managed a grand total of zero rushing yards. Now, they’ll look to improve on that in 2020 despite losing leading rusher Trevor Allen to graduation. Fortunately for the Panthers, they return a handful of other backs who all look capable of contributing and saw time last season despite various injuries.
“The goal is not to have one guy carry the ball 35 times a game even though we’ve had to do that the last couple years because of some injuries. But the goal is to have three or four guys that can go out there and change the pace up a little bit and keep guys fresh into the fourth quarter or deep into a season when you play 15 games,” RB coach Nick Danielson told the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.
Given the returners at offensive line and the potential for a potent passing game with the return of McElvain and Weston, plus the addition of Hampton and Robinson on the outside, the Panther offense looks to be in good hands and an improvement should come in the running game.
But with the potentially stingy defense returning, UNI may be just fine even if they don’t improve on their 22.6 point per game average from 2019. The secondary will likely be tops in the conference and returning all three LBs from a year ago gives them lots of options in terms of blitzes and coverages. With an anchor on the end in Elerson Smith and both tackles back, the defensive line will be stout.
Expect the Panthers to push for improvement on their 2019 record both in conference and overall.
UNI is a good matchup in week one. They’re a bit of a scary one with the Hawkeyes breaking in a new QB in Spencer Pertras given a defense that appears to be quite talented. But in the end, Iowa too has a solid defense, plenty of weapons on offense and the depth of a Power 5 team.
Iowa 31, UNI 13