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Another Top 20 opponent for Northern Iowa Saturday
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Another Top 20 opponent for Northern Iowa Saturday

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CEDAR FALLS – Seven.

That is how many turnovers Illinois State committed last Sunday in a 27-20 loss to South Dakota at home.

When talking about those miscues, Northern Iowa head coach Mark Farley said that was more of an anomaly than regular occurrence. Farley pointed to that it being the Redbirds first game of the spring season and that it was a program playing its first game in in nearly 15 months.

“That was their first outing because they had their first game cancelled,” Farley said. “I do know how teams change and better themselves from game one to game two.”

UNI itself made a big jump from a last-second loss to South Dakota State to open the 2021 spring slate to blanking Youngstown State, 21-0, a week later in a complete performance by the Panthers.

The third-ranked Panthers are expecting the 15th-ranked Redbirds to have made some adjustments and major improvements leading up to Saturday’s 4 p.m. kickoff inside the UNI-Dome.

“I think we will be in a football game where we have a football team that is very good and made a couple of errors that will be corrected,” Farley said. “We are going to get a quite a football game in here on Saturday.”

Where the Panthers feel they are going to see the most improvement is at quarterback where ISU starts a dynamic sophomore in Bryce Jefferson. Jefferson struggled at times against South Dakota throwing for 280 yards, but also throwing four interceptions. He also lost two fumbles.

Despite that, UNI sees a quarterback with a strong arm, can make plays with his feet (rushed for 68 yards on 12 carries against the Coyotes) and is a player who as a freshman won two playoff games for the Redbirds in 2019.

“There is a reason why they played him in the playoffs and a reason why they went deep into the playoffs because he played well,” Farley said.

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“He can scramble,” UNI safety Korby Sander said. “If you saw that last drive (last week when Jefferson was trying to rally ISU to victory) and he had scrambles of 10, 12, 14 yards. Containing him will be huge. We got to keep him in the pocket.”

Farley believes forgotten in last week’s loss is the Redbirds led the game 17-0 before the mistakes caught up and hurt them. Secondly, he knows ISU head coach Brock Spack will have a good plan, particularly on defense where the Redbirds are always solid.

“You have to give your due diligence to Illinois State,” Farley said. “I don’t put a lot of credence into what happened or how it happened. I just know there will probably be a lot of improvement this weekend.”

While he doesn’t put a lot of stock in all the mistakes Illinois State made last week, that won’t stop the Panthers from trying to make life difficult for the Redbirds and Jefferson in particular.

In the opening two games with new faces on the field and a team playing for the first time in more than a year, UNI’s defensive staff has not got past the first couple chapters of its playbook.

“We were fairly vanilla in what we did,” Farley said. “We just wanted to line up correctly last week not knowing what other people have in this time period. Our players did execute.

“It doesn’t matter what the plan is until you win that line of scrimmage and tackle clean. That is the difference. After that first half of that first game we have tackled a lot better.”

Offensively and defensively, Farley says there was plenty of error to correct from the win over Youngstown.

Behind a makeshift offensive line, UNI rushed for 191 yards against the Penguins. But quarterback Will McElvain was not as crisp as he was in the opener.

After completing 65 percent of his passes against SDSU, McElvain only hit 15 of 30 against YSU missing some passes he probably wished he had back.

“He needs to continue to buckle down and prepare,” Farley said. “Will, everybody has to do a great job of preparation. Coach Spack always has his guys ready to play on defense. They are just tough always sound and always play hard.”

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