CEDAR FALLS — Wins on paper are meaningless in the actual record book.
Victories that count are won on the field, and that has been the message Northern Iowa coach Mark Farley has been delivering to his 24th-ranked Panthers leading up to Saturday’s 4 p.m. contest with Indiana State on Senior Day at the UNI-Dome.
UNI (6-4 overall, 5-2 in Missouri Valley Conference) are heavily favored over the Sycamores (0-10, 0-7) on paper.
“They have struggled in areas as well all know by their record,” Farley said. “But when you look at some of the games they have played, looked at some of the scores in the third quarter, they are right there with a lot of these teams.
“It’s a very good football team in a very good conference so it is hard to measure what you are going up against because they are playing top quality teams. These guys aren’t just coming in here to play the game.”
UNI also knows it needs to win to secure a spot in the 24-team FCS playoff field. The playoff field will be announced at 10 a.m. Sunday on ESPNU.
The Panthers feel they have been in playoff mode for several weeks, counting back to when they were sitting at 2-3 and facing a stretch of four-straight games against Top-10 opponents.
“It has been like that for a couple of months now,” senior linebacker Jared Farley said. “We started 2-3 and our backs were against the wall. We have just been fighting every day in practice to get better to try to win games.
“We have done a good job so far so, yeah ... one more to go.”
Mark Farley says he’s not sure if there is a difference between regular-season mode and playoff mode when asked the same question.
“To answer that, it has been very intense getting ready for these football games because of the situation we were in,” he said. “We’re still in it.
“It’s the same type of demeanor for the approach to this football game, because it hasn’t changed. It doesn’t matter who you play, we’re still in the position that we need to play well this weekend to get another weekend.”
What Farley will agree upon, is the stretch to put itself in this position has taken a physical toll on UNI.
The Panthers could play Saturday without starting quarterback Eli Dunne, who was injured in the first quarter of UNI’s win over Missouri State last Saturday.
The offensive line will see the return of Cal Twait to its lineup this week at left tackle, but senior right tackle Bryce Sweeney remains questionable.
“Still a lot of questionable,” Farley said .
Defensively, the Panthers are banged up, but safety A.J. Allen returned to practice this week after missing the Bear game, and Keelon Brookins, who was injured in the first half against Missouri State, and did not play in the second, also practiced.
That is good news, because the play of the defense has been critical to the Panthers’ success as they have held their opponents to 329.4 yards per game, which over that same time period ranks second only to North Dakota State in the MVFC.
“They are playing good. They are playing hard,” Mark Farley said. “We are playing hard, playing well together and I still think we are improving.”
Indiana State’s top offensive player is running back LeMonte Booker, who ranks second in the MVFC with 842 rushing yards. The Sycamores have struggled defensively, giving up 493.4 yards and 45.3 points, both last in the league.
The Sycamores are 1-14 all-time in the UNI-Dome with their only win inside the Dome coming in 1988.
REDBIRD FANS: A victory over the Sycamores and a win by No. 21 Illinois State over No. 4 North Dakota State would give the Panthers a share of the MVC regular-season crown.
It would be UNI’s first conference championship since 2011, and 11th overall.
A win at the minimum, would guarantee the Panthers at least a share of second.