CEDAR FALLS — There are teams in the Missouri Valley Football Conference that may have more talent than Northern Iowa.
The league is also full of coaching staffs that can work the Xs and Os as well as any at the FCS or FBS levels.
So how does the 2018 Panther football team plan to compete in the rugged Missouri Valley Football Conference, which has five teams in the first FCS STATS Top 25, and earn a spot in the 24-team FCS playoffs?
UNI will do it the UNI way.
“It’s just finding a way to win and being tough,” running back Marcus Weymiller said. “Winning the UNI way is always expecting to win and always expecting to be in a dogfight and never, ever backing down.”
Panther head coach Mark Farley said during media day Wednesday that Weymiller exemplifies the UNI way, as do players like offensive tackle Cal Twait, safety A.J. Allen and a list that goes down the line.
When you have leaders like that on your team, Farley said, success follows.
“What makes one team better than another?” Farley questioned. “It isn’t talent. Talent is usually similar, and where people come from is very similar. The coaches are similar.
“It’s the team that embodied what has made great teams great that works. That means you have to do things outside of what is expected. You may not be the fastest guy or may not be the strongest guy or you may not have all the other things that other people have, but it doesn’t limit you if you put in the time.”
Farley, Weymiller and Twait said that is what will make the Panthers a contender in the MVFC this season and a team looking for its 20th FCS playoff berth.
“It’s doing the right stuff all the time, “said Twait, who enters his fourth year as a starter. “And it is doing it that way when nobody is watching. You just have to want to put your best foot forward on a daily basis.”
With a wealth of talent across the board, a third-year starter at quarterback in Eli Dunne and a defense that is full of talent albeit slightly inexperienced, the Panthers were picked to finished third in the MVFC preseason poll and 13th nationally in the STATS preseason poll.
“It’s exciting to see where we’re at right now with the whole group, because we do look physically better than we did last year at this time,” Farley said.
Confidence was a big word for Farley and his team on Wednesday. That especially illustrates the current difference between the Panthers’ offense and their defense.
The offense has a host of players who have been there and done that.
Dunne passed for 2,704 yards and 26 scores last season. Weymiller ran for 800 yards. There is a talented group of receivers led by Jaylin James, Isaiah Weston and Jalen Rima, and an offensive line led by three-year starter Cal Twait.
“Experience brings confidence, and Eli got that experience last year,” Farley said. “We are starting to see what makes great quarterbacks great, and I’m starting to see that in Eli.”
Talent is not a question on defense with playmakers like preseason all-MVFC picks Rickey Neal and Xavior Williams and veterans like Bryce Douglas, Duncan Ferch and A.J. Allen back. But experience is at a premium, especially in the defensive backfield where Williams and Allen, who missed all of the spring after having shoulder surgery, are the only players with starting experience.
“We’re a work in progress and only because of experience,” Farley said of his defense. “We don’t have a lot of experience, which breeds confidence. We’ve got to make sure they are confident and they know what the heck they are doing.
“So, we’ve got to get them lined up and get the right people in the right positions so they can be effective with their talent. We have the talent, it’s getting it to where they can play to their strength.”
And if Farley and his defensive staff can get those young, talented, inexperienced guys lined up correctly, Weymiller and a few of his fellow seniors will teach them what it means to fight.
“You can’t control a lot except for your attitude and effort,” Weymiller said. “Playing tough is one thing I’m always trying to do. Some days are harder than others, but if you play tough, you are going to be in the fight ... you are going to be in the thick of games.
“If you play tough and give great effort you are going to have a chance and if you do both of those things better than anything else, better than anyone else, you are going to have a shot in every game.”
The Panthers will once again face one of the toughest schedules in the FCS.
One year after playing the second-toughest schedule in the FCS, UNI opens in Missoula, Mont., on Sept. 1 against a Montana team that owns a .890 winning percentage at Washington-Grizzly Stadium since 1986.
The Panthers’ schedule also includes a date at Kinnick Stadium and five preseason FCS Top-25 opponents, including the Grizzlies.