CEDAR FALLS — The journey reaped a great reward.
That is what Northern Iowa football coach Mark Farley was most proud of Sunday when the Panthers received an at-large berth into the 24-team FCS playoff field.
UNI was also handed the additional reward of a home game and will host Big South Conference runner-up Monmouth University on Saturday at 4 p.m. inside the UNI-Dome.
The entire team gathered at Farley’s house to watch the FCS playoff show on ESPNU.
“That is why we got this far, I believe, because it is a great, tight group,” Farley added. “They are excited to be in it and when it was shown we were playing Monmouth and got a home game, that was even more exciting.”
Six weeks ago, making the playoffs looked like a longshot, but Farley credited a great group of senior leaders for UNI’s turnaround.
“That is what you are so pleased with and so proud of is how they responded,” Farley said. “Their back was against the wall, no question. We were looking down a schedule that had all Top 10 teams on it.
“We played solid football, and the most important thing is how they prepared every week to get ready to play.”
This will be the 19th FCS playoff appearance for the Panthers (7-4) and the first for the Hawks (9-2), although Farley said playoff experience is not overly important.
UNI last appeared in the postseason in 2015 when it reached the quarterfinals before falling to eventual national champion North Dakota State.
The Panthers also hosted a playoff game that season, a 53-17 win over Eastern Illinois. UNI has won at least one playoff game in 14 of its previous 18 appearances, including a win in 10 of its last 11 playoffs.
“I don’t think there is an advantage,” Farley said. “I think it is always nice to say you have been there, but most of our team when you really look at it, there only have been a handful that have been there. There are also just as many that have not.
“Every team is different. Every situation is different. How we handle it ... it is more important how we handle it as a group. This particular group, it’s their run, so they will write their own journey, write their own story as it unfolds.”
Farley only had a few minutes to research Monmouth before meeting with the media Sunday morning. He said the two teams were in the process of exchanging game film.
The Hawks closed their season with a 52-21 loss to Kennesaw State that was virtually a Big South Conference title game.
Freshman Pete Guerriero leads Monmouth with 1,079 rushing yards and nine touchdowns. Quarterback Kenji Bahar has completed 60 percent of his passes for 2,227 yards and 15 scores with 6-foot-3, 210-pound Reggie White Jr. hauling in 67 passes for 793 yards and eight scores.
The Hawks average 35.2 points per game and are nearly 50-50 in rush-pass ratio with 2,319 rushing yards and 2,227 passing yards.
“We will probably have a better handle on them tomorrow,” Farley said.
The winner of Monmouth-UNI game advances to face South Dakota State at 2 p.m. Dec. 2 in Brookings, S.D.
FIVE MVFC TEAMS IN: UNI is one of five MVFC teams in the field. North Dakota State is the No. 2 overall seed, South Dakota State is the No. 5 seed and Western Illinois and South Dakota are also in.
TICKETS: Season ticket holders began buying tickets online Sunday night while sales to the general public began at 10 a.m. Monday morning.
Prices are $20 at the McLeod Center Ticket Office or $24 online. UNI students will be admitted free with a scan of their student-ID at the UNI-Dome doors on game day.