Coming off a win over Western Illinois Saturday, the No. 4 ranked North Dakota State football team will travel to Cedar Falls to take on the University of Northern Iowa Panthers.
The Panthers picked up a win this past weekend as well, throttling Missouri State 61-7. UNI is currently unranked with a record of 3-4; however, don’t be fooled by the Panthers. All four of their losses have been by six points or fewer. Three of those losses have come against ranked FCS opponents, Montana, Eastern Washington and Youngstown State. Additionally, UNI knocked off FBS foe Iowa State, whom NDSU beat in 2014.
The last meeting between these two teams came in the 2015 quarterfinals, when the Bison, en route to their fifth consecutive national championship, defeated the Panthers in the Fargodome, 23-13. UNI will be looking to avenge the loss by beating NDSU on their home turf.
UNI’s strength, like NDSU, is their defense. The Panthers rank No. 3 in the Missouri Valley in scoring defense, allowing an average of 20.6 points per game this season. They also are No. 2 in total defense, allowing 303 yards per game. For comparison, the Bison rank No. 2 and No. 4 respectively in these categories.
Turnovers are the focal point of the Panthers’ defense, as they top the conference with a +9 turnover margin. Their average of 2.25 turnovers per game leads the Missouri Valley.
Linebacker Duncan Ferch and transfer cornerback Malcolm Washington both lead the conference in interceptions, with three apiece. Both have shown off big play ability, as Ferch has returned two of his interceptions for touchdowns and Washington has also added one pick six. Thanks in part to these two, the Panthers rank No. 2 in all of the FCS in defensive touchdowns.
This, as well as UNI’s No. 2 ranked pass defense, will be a top concern for the Bison, as quarterback Easton Stick is coming off of his two worst games as a starter, including two interceptions against Western Illinois.
UNI find themselves in a bind under center. Last year’s starter Aaron Bailey has dropped to the bench after some struggles during the Panthers’ recent skid. His replacement, Eli Dunne, has taken over in good form. Last week, he became the first Panther to throw for over 400 yards. It is worth noting, though, Bailey did not start the regular season game against the Bison last year; then tore the Bison apart with read-option runs in the second half.
The Panthers boast a two-pronged rushing attack of running backs Tyvis Smith and Bailey, both of whom are in the top seven in the conference in rushing. They rely heavily on these two, as their passing offense has been lackluster. NDSU will certainly be capable of stopping these two, as their run defense is the best in the conference. The Herd have conceded just 93.2 yards per game.
Additionally, while Northern Iowa has the second best scoring offense in the conference, the Bison have the best scoring defense. NDSU’s ability to contain Bailey, Smith and the rest of the Panther offense will decide the game.
The Bison, with one of the conference’s best defenses, should be up to the task. Defensive mainstays Robbie Grimsley, Greg Menard, Matt Plank and MJ Stumpf will be called upon the make the stops NDSU needs.
Offensively for the Bison, they’ll need to attack UNI’s exploitable run defense with big plays. Establishing the running game against the Panthers’ strong pass defense will be critical. King Frazier, Lance Dunn and Chase Morlock will have to use their feet to open up the passing attack for Stick. Doing so will make it much easier for Stick to find wide receivers RJ Urzendowski and Darrius Shepherd. Tight end Jeff Illies will likely be in the mix as well, coming off of a good performance against Western Illinois.
If the defense does its job stopping the Panthers’ rushing attack, and the passing game can find its footing against UNI’s ballhawks, expect the Herd to return to Fargo with a win.