AMES — Win the turnover battle, win the game.
If it has been said once, it’s been said a million times by football coaches at every level.
As cliche as it is, that has held true the last two times Northern Iowa has faced a Matt Campbell coached Iowa State football team.
In 2016, the Panthers forced three Cyclone turnovers in the final five minutes turning the first into a go-ahead touchdown and the final two helped seal a 25-20 victory. Flash forward to a year later, and ISU returns two interceptions for touchdowns in the first quarter en route to a 42-24 victory.
Saturday when UNI and ISU square off at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames at 11 a.m. in a nationally televised game on FS1, the Panthers understand they have to avoid self-inflicted wounds.
“Trusting each other, working hard and playing to the best of our ability,” middle linebacker Spencer Cuevlier said. “Got to stay away from mental and physical errors and not hurting ourselves.”
There is something else UNI understands as well and that this is perhaps the best Iowa State team the Panthers have seen since the two resumed their series in 1992.
“By far. By far,” Panther head coach Mark Farley said. “They’re confident, they’re competitive, and when I say that it’s compared to other teams we’ve played down there. They have that internal mechanism that really makes them good besides just the talent on the field. I noticed that the last time we played them. I’ve noticed it more so now”
Iowa State’s 16 wins the last two season under Campbell ties a school record for the best two-year win total in school history, and the Cyclones have won their last six games inside Jack Trice.
Furthermore, ISU returns 11 players on defense and 11 on offense who have started at least three games in their respective careers.
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So, in a nutshell, this is a far different program UNI is facing than it has in any of its previous meetings against the Cyclones.
“It is a much stronger football team than what we have played in the past,” Farley said. “They are handful. They were picked third in the Big 12, top 20 in the country and legitimately so. This isn’t a fluke by any means that they are picked that high.”
UNI will enter the game prepared, as best as it can be, for what it believes it will see out of ISU, offensively and defensively. But more than anything, the Panthers say success does not completely rely on them countering and stopping everything the Cyclones will throw at them and more about perfecting what they do.
That plays most true with quarterback Will McElvain, who will be making his first start.
“Got to hold ourselves accountable,” wide receiver Jaylin James said of ways the offense can help McElvain. “Especially us older guys, me, Briley (Moore), Jackson (Scott-Brown), Trevor (Allen) and just being able to hold ourselves accountable and do our job every single play and move the ball down the field.
“If we can move the ball down the field and not turn the ball over, I think we will be able to do things and get Will rolling, and once he gets rolling he is going to catch fire.”
For Scott-Brown, he is a calming force at left guard for an offensive line that has to contain the best part of ISU’s defense, its front seven led by guys like JaQuan Bailey. who needs once sack to become the Cyclones all-time leader in that category, defensive tackle Ray Lima, and two standout linebackers in Mike Rose and Marcel Spears.
“They will probably be some of the better players we play this year,” Scott-Brown said. “Our biggest thing is just to play our assignment and not make the moment too big. They have good pad level and they are really strong, but we are really strong as well so we have to match their intensity and strength on the field.”
Defensively, UNI has to find a way to contain Cyclone quarterback Brock Purdy, whose 169.9 passing efficiency last season ranked sixth nationally and was the best in NCAA history for a true freshman.
A lot of that responsibility will fall on Cuevlier, who will be making his first career start at middle linebacker after transferring from Iowa Central. One thing Cuvelier understands most is that Saturday’s game will be a lot different than it was in Dodger Stadium last fall.
“It is going to go from 300 people to 60,000 plus,” Cuvelier smiled. “I’m not sure how much affect the noise will have, but I’m just working to know my teammates better and having them trusting me as a leader
“The game will be a challenge, but we are looking forward to it.”