CEDAR FALLS — Tap the brakes.
The University of Northern Iowa football team heard the praise. The Panthers read the press clippings about how well they played in a triple-overtime loss to Iowa State last week.
But 11th-ranked UNI also knows it is time to throw out the newspapers and erase the highlights from the DVR.
While the Panthers are proud of their grit, fight and effort against the Cyclones, they also understand they were far from perfect and nothing will be handed to them based on one good performance.
“Got to stay focused,” defensive back Xavior Williams said.
It would be easy for the Panthers to be full of themselves and look past a Southern Utah team that took it on the chin last week at UNLV and is coming off a 1-10 season.
That’s where UNI head coach Mark Farley has reminded his squad to tap the brakes.
“I see a good football team,” Farley said of the Thunderbirds that UNI will host Saturday at 4 p.m. inside the UNI-Dome. “All that I remember is they beat us out there (24-17 loss in 2017). It doesn’t matter what I see on film, I know what I saw on that turf when we played them last.
“We’ve got to make sure we bring the team back. We have to find a way to get better from the game we just played and coach that phase of it ... the technique and fundamentals of what we did right and wrong.”
The Thunderbirds are hoping teams overlook them. It didn’t even phase fourth-year head coach Demario Warren when Southern Utah was picked to finished 12th in the 13-team Big Sky Conference.
In fact, it played right into his and the Thunderbirds’ hands.
“I love proving people wrong all the time, so the lower the better,” Warren told the Salt Lake Tribune. “It is going to be a great story for everybody when we do what we expect to do this season.”
After going 9-3 and winning a share of the Big Sky crown in 2017, the Thunderbirds stumbled last season and part of that was a defense that gave up 41.5 points and 541.2 yards per game.
That brought change with Warren hiring a new defensive coordinator, Brandon Fisher, the son of long-time NFL coach Jeff Fisher.
While Fisher is new, Farley said the Thunderbirds return the bulk of their remaining staff.
“I don’t see them different,” Farley said. “I anticipate very similar play out of them.”
UNI began preparing for the Thunderbirds, along with Iowa State, during the last two weeks of preseason, but the focus this week was more about the Panthers than Southern Utah.
“The process is important,” running back Trevor Allen said. “Obviously, we want to get back out there because we know we had enough left in the tank to win that game (at Iowa State). But at the end of the day you learn from it and move on.
“We know Southern Utah is going to come ready to play. We’ve got to keep going and not settle with the way we played last Saturday. We’ve got to get better day by day and never settle, never get stagnant.”
Farley has challenged his offensive line and running backs to take a step forward this week, as well as rookie quarterback Will McElvain.
“We should’ve run the ball better,” Farley said. “We did not run the ball well enough, did not play at the line of scrimmage I thought as well as we could have. We need to improve that phase.”
As for McElvin, Farley said, “I thought he was very good. No question he gave us many opportunities by extending plays. But we should be getting the ball out sooner and quicker. Everybody’s strength is his weakness and his strength is to escape and throw the football. It is also his double-edged sword. He has to rely on his ability to get the ball out on time and use his strength as his weapon and not just as his day-to-day game.”
Offensively, the Thunderbirds present another challenge. A year ago, Southern Utah finished fifth in the Big Sky in total offense at 435.2 yards per game.
Last week, the Thunderbirds used two quarterbacks — Tyler Skidmore, who threw for two touchdowns, and Chris Helbig. The duo combined for 295 yards on 25 of 42 passing. Southern Utah managed just 46 rushing yards, but Jay Green, who led the team with 829 yards in 2018, was suspended for the game. His status for Saturday’s game is unknown.
“We need to get in the win column, that is for sure. That is our No. 1 priority,” Allen said. “We need to come make a full team effort and put a few more things together.”
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