CEDAR FALLS — Together, ninth-ranked Northern Iowa’s defensive line is like one big brotherhood.

Averaging 3 1/2 sacks a game in 2019, that unit has been a big reason why the Panthers nearly pulled off an upset at Iowa State and why UNI has won back-to-back contests against Southern Utah and Idaho State.

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Junior defensive end Elerson Smith leads the team and the Missouri Valley Football Conference with five sacks. Senior Seth Thomas, who starts at the other defensive end spot, is just a bit envious, but not really.

“It’s always a competition,” laughed Thomas. “At the end of the day you’ve got teammates who have more stats than the other and there is a little bragging.

“But really, it’s about getting to the quarterback and it doesn’t matter who it is.”

Thomas has four tackles for loss and 1 1/12 sacks and has been just as much a menace in opposing team’s backfields.

UNI head coach Mark Farley says the two are feeding off each other.

“I tell you what, the guy who is having a good season is Seth Thomas,” Farley said. “What Seth is doing on his pass rush is where his greatest improvement is from last year. So, Seth is playing some really good football which in turn, so is Elerson, and I think they are balancing each other.”

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If you ask Smith and Thomas, they aren’t the only ones having parties in their opponents’ backfields.

Smith and Thomas are quick to point out that Jared Brinkman, Tim Butcher, Brawntae Wells and Khristian Boyd have also been instrumental in the success the defensive line has had leading into the Panthers’ game Saturday at No. 5 Weber State.

“I think we have a great group of guys who can get after the quarterback, stuff the run and do what we have to do,” said Smith.

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Thomas said what Smith did last year as a non-starter is a prime example of why the defensive line is performing at a high level. Last season, Thomas started all 13 games at right end, recording 39 tackles, 3.5 for loss and three sacks. Smith played in all 13 games, relieving both Thomas and graduated Rickey Neal, and ranked third on the team with 10.5 TFLs and second with 7.5 sacks.

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“We have guys behind us that fit and perform well in our rotation,” Thomas said. “Coach Farley does a great job of mentioning there are guys here today that haven’t played yet that at the end of the year are going to be star players that you don’t see coming.”

As well as they have played to date, the Panthers understand the Weber State offense, which has struggled, is loaded with excellent players and athletes and will probably present as many problems as Iowa State did in week one.

UNI knows it will have to at least match its defensive performance against Southern Utah and Idaho State. If that happens, the Panthers’ chances of success increase.

It will be a tall task, but UNI’s numbers to date are impressive.

In UNI’s two games against FCS opponents, the Panther defense has given up just 403 yards on 171 plays. That is 3.05 yards per play. In the running game, Southern Utah and Idaho State rushed 84 times against UNI and averaged just 2.02 yards per rush.

Farley said the defense needs to raise its level even more against a Wildcat team that had an extra week to prepare.

“I’m pleased with where we are at, but there are some flaws out there,” Farley said.

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Smith said the defensive has accepted Farley’s challenge.

“Obviously, whatever we have to do to make our defense better on Saturday, we will do what it takes,” Smith said. “We have enough guys in the room that can handle that task.”

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