CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa’s football team describes Saturday’s opponent in colorful terms.
“They are hammering people,” Panther head coach Mark Farley said of 18th-ranked Youngstown State.
“They are going to try to hit us in the mouth,” UNI linebacker Chris Kolarevic added.
Off to its first 4-0 start since 2012, Youngstown State will roll into the UNI-Dome for Saturday’s 4 p.m. Homecoming kickoff against the 13th-ranked Panthers after demolishing its non-conference slate.
The Penguins rank fourth in the FCS in rushing yards per game (296.3) and scoring offense (44.5). Youngstown State has scored 34 or more points in four straight games for the first time since 2006, and the defense has forced 11 turnovers as the Penguins lead the FCS in turnover margin at 2.25 per game.
“Execute,” Penguins head coach Bo Pelini said of the keys to success against UNI. “Communicate well, and come off the football. You’ve got to match their physicality and try to overcome their physicality and be the more physical team.”
It’s a game that will pit strength against strength.
The Penguins have shown they can run the ball. The Panthers have defended the run well. Taking away the game at Iowa State, UNI’s defense has allowed 235 rushing yards on 120 carries, a 1.96 yards per rush average. The Panthers rank 20th overall in the FCS, allowing 105 rushing yards per game.
“They are going to run it right down the throat and are doing a nice job of it,” Farley said. “So they run the ball hard and it is your typical Youngstown State team with a hard-nosed, power game.”
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Youngstown State has five players who have rushed for at least 165 yards and scored a touchdown, with Joe Alessi leading the pack with 358 yards and three scores. Quarterback Nathan Mays has rushed for 219 and four scores, while Braxton Chapman and Christian Turner each have scored three times.
Alessi, Chapman, and Turner all average better than seven yards a carry.
“They are going to come at us with 12 and 21 personnel, which is two backs and two tight ends, and they are going to try to hit us in the mouth,” Kolarevic said. “We are going to punch them, too, I promise you that. We are going to hit them back. It will be a test for the defense.”
Youngstown State admits UNI will be its toughest opponent to date as the Penguins have played Samford, Howard, Duquesne and Robert Morris, beating Robert Morris at home last week, 45-10.
The Penguins haven’t been on the road since beating Samford, 45-22, on Aug. 24 in the FCS Kickoff Classic in Montgomery, Ala., and they have not had much recent success in Cedar Falls. While the two teams have split the last four games, Youngstown State has lost 10 consecutive games inside the UNI-Dome with its last win in Cedar Falls coming in 1999.
Farley said that it is of little importance against a Penguin team that is playing with a little extra juice.
“They are undefeated,” Farley said. “They have played very well and have scored a lot of points. We all know they play great defense. They are playing very good football. They’ve got a lot of momentum right now with a 4-0 start.”
For their part, the Panthers have put a humbling, 29-17 loss at No. 5 Weber State behind them and have concentrated on putting together a good week of practice for their Missouri Valley Football Conference opener.
“We got an extra day off Monday and we ran around and I think had a good day today of getting better,” defensive end Elerson Smith said. “This is an important game for us. We want to start the conference season 1-0. That is for sure.”