CEDAR FALLS — In early October, the Northern Iowa football team decided to leave the “Fool” at home.
From that point on, the Panthers soared.
After a 2-3 start, UNI head coach Mark Farley says he is extremely proud of how his new staff and team found a way to salvage the 2017 season, reach the FCS playoffs and become the 15th team in program history to win a playoff game.
“Really the message at that time was eliminate our mistakes, which we called, ‘Leave the fool at home,” Farley said. “What we were saying is don’t be the fool. Fool penalties were killing drives. Turnovers were killing drives. Mental mistakes were giving up big plays.”
Emphasis leading into a 38-18 win at South Dakota State was put into detail of play rather than adding more plays or schemes.
That, combined with the new coaching staff beginning to mesh, the offensive line overcoming the loss of three projected starters and the return of Marcus Weymiller, sparked the offense.
Defensively, senior Elijah Campbell was moved to safety when redshirt freshman Xavior Williams proved to be ready play after much tutelage from new defensive backs coach Jeff Burris. UNI was able to add an experienced defender on the back line and a dynamic defender who picked off passes in four straight games to end the season.
“So many things were going on early, we lost four or five starters in that Cal Poly game and any continuity we had built was lost,” Farley said. “We had to regroup at that time and that was the first phase.
“Then we started to figure out more pieces of the puzzle when Marcus and Xavior came back. Those were the right moves at the right time and all of a sudden there was more consistency on both sides of the ball and we just kept on getting better and better.”
With Weymiller back, UNI’s offense went from averaging 72 rushing yards per game to nearly 150 by season’s end. It also took some pressure off quarterback Eli Dunne, who had thrown eight interceptions in the Panthers’ first five games but threw just two more in the final eight.
On the defensive side of the ball, a team that had given up huge pass plays to Cal Poly, Western Illinois and Southern Utah, was no longer getting beat over the top.
“It was fun,” Farley said.”It was probably one of the best turnarounds we have had since 2005. It was a phenomenal run and a lot of fun when you look back at it.
“A lot of credit goes to my coaches showing determination to make it right, and the players with the right work ethic to make it work. Our practices got better and better and conducted with more purpose.”
Farley also credited his senior class that made three playoff appearances in their careers.
“I’m going to miss a guy like Daurice (Fountain),” Farley said. “I will miss him because of the fun and energy he brought to practice. It didn’t matter what our record was, he brought the energy to practice. I’m going to miss guys like Jared (Farley) and Adam (Reth) because of their drive and will to win.”
UNI graduated 16 seniors, including seven starters on the defensive side of the ball — Farley, Reth, Bryce Douglas, Preston Woods, Malcolm Washington, Keelon Brookins and Campbell. The Panthers lose just three offensive starters — Fountain, center Lee Carhart and offensive tackle/guard Bryce Sweeney.
NO SPRING BALL: Brown, Weymiller and safety A.J. Allen will all miss the spring season following surgeries.
Brown suffered a knee injury early in the season, and missed UNI’s final eight games. Weymiller is having surgery on his ankle to repair an issue that hampered him all season, while Allen, who played a good portion of the season with a bum shoulder, had that repaired.
Farley said UNI will begin its off-season weight program on Jan. 15, and spring practice will begin the week after UNI’s spring break.
SIXTH-YEAR: UNI is petitioning for an extra year of eligibility for Douglas, who sat out two injury filled years at Illinois before transferring to UNI.
“The paperwork is done. You just don’t know when you will hear on the appeal. It might not be until April,” Farley said.
SIGNING DAY: After signing nearly 50 high school players in his last two recruiting classes, Farley expects to add a few junior college transfers with his 2017-18 recruiting class, which he can began signing on Dec. 20 in the first year of a new three-day early signing period.
Farley said he expects to sign anywhere between 15 to 18 prospects and says a majority of them could sign in December.
“We will bring in some transfers,” Farley said. “You build with high school talent and we have done that. Now after two years, we see what we’ve got and where we maybe need to supplement, build depth and add more experience.”