OGDEN, Utah — It is not a mirror image, but darn close.
The Big Sky Conference is mostly known for high-flying offenses. That includes Eastern Washington, a team that played in the FCS National Championship game last January.
There are currently four teams in the Big Sky that average more than 450 total yards and better than 36 points a game.
Now, flipping over to the Missouri Valley Football Conference, two teams average more than 450 yards and three that score at more than 35 points a game. One of those is Youngstown State, which if anybody’s seen the Penguins play under Bo Pelini, Pelini’s offense would not be described as run and gun.
In terms that professional football fans can understand, the MVFC is the black and blue NFC North, while the Big Sky is the wide-open NFC West.
And exactly, what does that have to do with No. 9 Northern Iowa’s game Saturday against No. 5 Weber State?
Panther coach Mark Farley says the Wildcats would fit in just nicely in the MVFC, in particular, WSU’s sixth-year head coach Jay Hill.
“I can tell you their talent level is very, very good,” Farley said. “Their head coach is a defensive coach and he would fit in this league very well because this league is made up of those kinds of coaches.
“So, his (team) is going to bring the same kind of demeanor we play against in the Missouri Valley. That is a great compliment to their football team. It is a very strong football team, a very talented football team.”
Behind all-Big Sky defensive ends Jonah Williams and Adam Rodriguez, the Wildcats are one of the top defensive teams in the country. WSU currently ranks first in the Big Sky in scoring defense (16.3) and third in total defense (345.7).
To further drive home how stingy the Wildcats (1-2) have been defensively in 2019, WSU has played two FBS opponents, San Diego State, and Nevada, and allowed just 25 total points.
“Maybe different in styles of play, but at the end of the day, through the naked eye, it appears you got the same type of toughness in how the game is played and what is expected on the defensive side and special teams,” Farley added.
If there has been a kink in the armor for Weber State, a team that has shared the last two Big Sky regular-season crowns, it is an offense that has struggled and ranks last in Big Sky (245.3 yards per game).
Part of the struggle may be answered Saturday if junior quarterback Jake Constantine returns from injury. Constantine passed for 2,205 and 18 scores last year but injured a knee in the Wildcats’ lone win this season over Cal Poly. Constantine had a procedure on his knee two weeks ago and did not suit up in a loss to Nevada.
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Brett Hein of the Ogden Standard-Examiner reported that Hill lists Constantine as day-to-day and probable to play against UNI.
“There’s going to be a day where (Constantine) breaks through and looks good. At his position, we need him out there managing the office and I don’t think he’s far from that,” Hill told the Standard-News.
WSU has plenty of offensive weapons beyond Constantine.
Sophomore running back Josh Davis was named the Big Sky Freshman of the Year and the Jerry Rice Award winner for the FCS Freshman of the Year after rushing for 1,362 yards a year ago, the sixth most in WSU history. So far this season, Davis has been held in check with 161 yards on 31 carries, 129 of those coming against Cal Poly on 14 carries in a game he scored twice.
Wide receiver Rashid Shaheed is also dangerous, particularly in the return game where he has earned back-to-back FCS all-American honors. Last season, Shaheed ranked second nationally in kickoff return yards (34.3) and returned two for touchdowns.
“They have some excellent players on offense,” UNI defensive end Seth Thomas said. “They are the 2017 and 2018 Big Sky champs and there is a reason for that ... they have a bunch of great players.”
Through three games, UNI, statistically looks a lot like Weber State.
The Panthers rank third in both scoring (16.3) and total defense (297.7) in the MVFC, but ranked dead last in total offense (287.7) and second to last in rush offense (80.7).
“It is a young group of offensive players. We are still dealing with a freshman quarterback (Will McElvain),” Farley said. “We are still dealing with a lot of new people working together so they are going to go through some growing pains as they put this together.
“You are going to go through some inconsistencies and the sooner we get through those inconsistencies the more production we will get.”
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING?: The elevation at Ogden, Utah, the site of Saturday’s game, is 4,300 feet above sea level, the last time UNI played at a higher elevation was in 2017 at Southern Utah (5,846).
Last year, UNI opened at Montana where the elevation in Missoula was 3,208 feet.
The Panthers and Farley said it is a factor, but also say the team has prepared for it with extra conditioning beginning in the preseason and through the first month of the season, and with the depth it has built.
“I did not feel it last year in Montana,” defensive end Elerson Smith said. “I know some of the guys said at Southern Utah they could feel it. I think we are in good enough shape that it doesn’t matter if the game is in Colorado, Utah or Iowa, we can play all four quarters and we can play hard.”