CEDAR FALLS — Mark Farley was not going to tip his hand this early in the week.
The million-dollar question for Northern Iowa’s head football coach was who was going to be his starting quarterback when the Panthers take the field against Iowa Saturday night at 6:30 p.m. inside Kinnick Stadium.
The question seemed preposterous weeks ago, with returning starter Eli Dunne back for what basically was his third year at the helm of UNI’s offense.
Dunne was as entrenched a starter as anybody on UNI’s roster.
Then, Dunne struggled big time in the Panthers’ season-opening 26-23 loss at Montana, completing just 5 of 20 passes for 24 yards. Back-up Colton Howell replaced him in the third quarter, leading UNI to all 23 of its points.
Farley said he and his coaching staff used the Panthers’ bye week to evaluate every position and said quarterback was no different, saying Dunne, Howell, Jacob Keller and Will McElvain all got equal reps.
So, long story short, Farley wasn’t ready Monday to either anoint Howell as his new starter or keep Dunne, given the senior from Grinnell’s past body of work. Farley did say the Montana performance was more of an anomaly.
“It was more ... it was very competitive, if you want to put it that way, and it was sharp,” Farley said. “It actually helped the tempo of practice, the intensity of practice for an off week, and we will see if it will pay off.”
Farley said both Dunne and Howell were strong in performance in the off week, especially Dunne, who showed no outwardly effects from his off performance against the Grizzlies.
“He was very competitive last week, as all of them were,” Farley said. “He is very consistent in his demeanor. He is very consistent in his play. I don’t foresee Eli changing a whole lot. Intrinsically, he may feel some things he doesn’t say, but at the same time he was very competitive last week, stepped up and looked like he did all of camp.”
Howell, who is 2-0 as a starter for UNI, provides more of a running threat for the Panthers. He rushed for 45 yards in a win over Indiana State in 2016, and last year he rushed 14 times for 57 yards and a touchdown in spot duty. He had a 30-yard run against Montana on a read-option play that sparked the Panthers’ first scoring drive.
Dunne, more of a pocket quarterback, gained 90 yards last year on the ground, but counting the 31 times he was sacked, his net total was a negative-155.
“What is good about Colton is when he got put in the fire, the heat of the battle ... every time he has gone in, he has been productive and he has been very calm and collected in how he has run the game,” Farley said.
Farley remains confident in both Dunne and Howell’s abilities, noting that UNI might start new players at linebacker, defensive line and at running back, but nobody was questioning those decisions.
“We magnify the quarterback position way too much,” Farley said. “We are going to play a different linebacker, different d-linemen, and the same could be said for Marcus Weymiller at running back. Nobody asked me about Trevor (Allen) or Marcus. Everybody is worried about the quarterback.
“We will deal with that this week and put the best person on the football field that gives us the best chance to win and you may see both, you may see one.”
INJURY FRONT: Wide receiver Aaron Graham, who has not practiced in 2 1/2 weeks, remains questionable for Saturday’s game and was not expected to practice again Monday.
Safety Christian Jegen practiced Monday and should be available after missing the Montana game, and Farley added that he anticipates everybody else is expected to play.
FULL RIDES: Last week during the bye week. Farley placed four walk-on players on scholarship — wide receiver Nick Fossey, kickers Austin Errthum and Sam Drysdale and offensive lineman Colton Lueck.