CEDAR FALLS — Last Saturday, Northern Iowa took a firm grasp of a rung on the ladder and pulled itself off the floor of a hole it had dug itself with a 1-2 start in non-conference play and beat Southern Illinois in its Missouri Valley Football Conference opener.
The next rung up the ladder in the MVFC will be a little harder to reach for the Panthers as they host 15th-ranked Western Illinois Saturday at UNI-Dome on Homecoming for UNI (2-2 overall, 1-0 MVFC).
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“They are a great team,” linebacker A.J Allen said. “They have a striving offense that is super productive. Just look at the stat lines and they do a lot of things well.”
The Panthers have won five of the last six against the Leathernecks, but WIU (3-1 0-1) won the last time the two teams met in the UNI-Dome, 24-19, in 2015. Western has not won back to back in Cedar Falls since 2000 and 2002. A victory over the Panthers would give WIU its first 4-1 start since 2003.
The Leathernecks opened the season 3-0, before falling to South Dakota last week, 38-33, in a game it trailed 38-3, only to mount an incredible fourth quarter rally to get back into it.
UNI head coach Mark Farley said the Western Illinois has a slight advantage on its MVFC opponents as the league is trying to solve second-year coach Charlie Fisher’s scheme and mode of operation.
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“As I watch them on film they have a good plan,” Farley said. “They have an edge. You get the edge on people trying to figure it out. Some older teams like NDSU and Youngstown ... we know what they do.
“The other thing is they have very good players. Their quarterback is what makes them go and he is a tremendous leader and a good passer.”
Leatherneck quarterback Sean McGuire has connected on 69 percent of his passes as he has thrown for 1,062 yards and nine scores against three picks. A week ago, he and junior wide receiver Jaelon Acklin had a game for the edges as Acklin hauled in 19 receptions for 343 yards and three touchdowns. He had 12 catches for 172 yards and two scores in the second half.
UNI gave up some big plays a week ago to Southern Illinois in both the run and pass game and that has been a point of emphasis this week in practice for the Panthers.
“We have to eliminate the explosive plays and that will make the biggest difference on the defensive side, Farley said.
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“It is not often that in the flow of a game you see a defense stop somebody for zero yards over and over,” added Allen. “Every now and then it is going to happen and you go to the sidelines, make your adjustments, try to stop them and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Offensively, UNI spent much of its week in practice on improving its run attack. The Panthers went for more than 100 yards for the first time all season last week against the Salukis, and the offensive line could get a boost as Cal Twait, who started the first three games of the season at left tackle before missing the game at Southern Illinois, returned to practice Tuesday.
Farley says run game and pass game have to complement each other and that certainly was the case a week ago when quarterback Eli Dunne went 16 of 20 in the first half.
“That was a big part of us rushing the football because of his effectiveness in throwing the football,” Farley said. “Those things make a difference for us. He is going to get tested this weekend. The style of defense coming after him this weekend is much different, very aggressive.
“He (Dunne) has his work cut out for him to prepare and a big day ahead of him going up against that defense.”
The Leathernecks are giving up just 338.5 yards per game, and are led by all-league linebacker Brett Taylor. Western ranks second in the MVFC averaging 9.4 tackles for loss per game.