Alone atop the Missouri Valley Football Conference, the North Dakota State Bison will take on the Northern Iowa Panthers this Saturday at the Fargodome. The Panthers played a tough non-conference schedule, facing FBS Iowa State, Cal Poly and Southern Utah that saw them enter conference action at 1-2.
Now 4-3 and ranked No. 25 in this week’s FCS Coaches Poll, the Panthers have vaulted themselves back into the thick of the Missouri Valley championship race. Consecutive wins over top 15 opponents have seen them rise into a three-way tie for second place in the Missouri Valley.
Relying on a pass-heavy offense to put points on the board, the Panthers are stewarded by experienced signal caller Eli Dunne. The junior has completed 60.4 percent of his passes for 1,799 yards and 17 touchdowns. UNI ranks second in the conference in passing touchdowns and ranks fifth in passing yards per game.
The Panthers’ 108.9 yards rushing per game belie their ability to run the football. Top running back Marcus Weymiller, who missed five games due to an ankle injury on the opening kickoff of the season, has returned and boosted UNI’s run game. The Panthers have rushed for 399 yards in their past two games, 302 of which came from Weymiller. The Waukon, Iowa native made his presence known in his return against South Dakota State, rushing for 170 yards on 42 carries.
Weymiller’s presence has been a huge lift in the eyes of Bison head coach Chris Klieman. “They have much more balance to their offense,” the fourth year skipper remarked. “They had a great formula for the last two wins they had, which is to run the football, play really good defense and really good special teams. They’ve been able to create some really big turnovers.”
The top target for Dunne has been senior wide receiver Daurice Fountain. Also an all-conference hurdler last year for UNI, Fountain is one of the conference’s leading pass catchers. Fountain’s 625 yards are second in the conference and he has found the end zone five times.
Tight end Elias Nissen has emerged as an important red zone option for the Panthers. The 243-pound junior has leveraged his frame to score four touchdowns this season.
How NDSU is able to handle the matchups against Fountain and Nissen will be critical to their success defensively.
Cornerback Jalen Allison has been NDSU’s top corner in coverage all season and figures to match up on the outside with Fountain. The Bison’s secondary kept Western Illinois’ Jaelon Acklin from scoring, but allowed him to reel in six catches for 115 yards. Allison and the rest of the secondary, with safeties Robbie Grimsley and Tre Dempsey, will need to slow down Fountain to disrupt Dunne’s rhythm.
Nissen’s large build will make him a difficult matchup for the Herd’s linebackers. Nick DeLuca, whose health has improved each week, and redshirt freshman Jabril Cox will be called upon to make open field stops for the Bison in coverage against the physical tight end.
Assisting the Bison in coverage has been their ability to get home on pass rushes with just four down linemen. Klieman commended the work of his defensive line and defensive coordinator Matt Entz.
“Whether it’s the defensive tackles or the defensive ends, we’re getting a really good pass rush,” he said. “You’d like to be able to rush four all the time and not bring your fifth and sixth guys and play coverage. We’ve been able to do that. We were able to do that last week a little bit more.”
NDSU’s blossoming pass rush has been one of the best in the Missouri Valley in spite of the loss of defensive end Greg Menard at the onset of the season. The Panthers’ offensive line has allowed 15 sacks, which bodes well for Cox and sophomore Cole Karcz. The young guys lead the team with three sacks each. As a whole, the Bison have tallied 21 sacks this season, second in the conference.
The front seven for UNI has been the focal point of their defense. “They’re really disruptive up front, and they always have been,” Klieman commented. “When you get to the quarterback as much as they did against Youngstown, you’re getting behind the chains an awful lot.”
Senior linebacker Jared Farley captains the Panthers’ defense. Farley has racked up 38 solo tackles and four tackles for loss to go along with one interception. He has recorded double-digit tackles in four games, and was recently named to the Buck Buchanan Award watch list for his outstanding play.
Alongside Farley in the teeth of UNI’s defense is linebacker Rickey Neal. The junior has made hay behind the line of scrimmage, leading UNI with 6.5 sacks and nine tackles for loss.
Sophomore Hezekiah Applegate and senior Keelon Brookins have dropped the opposing quarterback three times from the defensive line this season.
Running the football against the Panthers’ front seven already would have been a difficult task for the Bison, but Lance Dunn’s hip injury against WIU will only add to the challenge. Klieman indicated that Dunn is currently “doubtful” for Saturday’s clash.
Should Dunn miss the contest, Bruce Anderson will be left as the primary back. The Panther run defense has conceded 141 yards per game on the ground. Klieman also alluded to the possibility that Ty Brooks could return from a hamstring injury that has seen him miss four games.
A win for UNI would see them rise into a least a tie for first place with South Dakota in the Missouri Valley. Facing a streaking Panthers side, the Bison will have their work cut out for them for a third consecutive week.