CEDAR FALLS — If there was a vision of how Northern Iowa’s offense was to operate it was crystal clear last Saturday against North Dakota State.
Facing the top defense in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, the Panthers produced 466 total yards, including 362 through the air. The 31 points UNI scored was only the fourth time since 2011 that the Bison had allowed more than 30 points in a game.
As the Panthers head into an important MVFC game at South Dakota Saturday at 6 p.m., UNI is going to need to hit on all cylinders, offensively, again.
“We have players all across the board,” sophomore receiver Nick Fossey said. “Defense can’t key in on one guy. We have guys across the board that can make plays.”
Against the Bison, quarterback Eli Dunne’s 362 passing yards were the second most he’s thrown in a game since going for more than 400 in his starting debut against Missouri State in 2016.
And unlike a year ago when Daurice Fountain was a focal point of UNI’s passing game, defenses haven’t been able to key in on one receiver.
Dunne connected with eight different receivers against NDSU, with seven of them hauling in three or more catches.
It’s a unit that is starting to find a rhythm after losing a huge asset when preseason all-MVFC pick Isaiah Weston was lost for the season with an ACL injury in preseason camp.
“One thing I do think is we have a lot of depth at receiver,” junior Jaylin James said. “If one guy gets tired, another steps in and goes 110 percent. We have a lot of guys willing to do that, not just play hard, but make plays for us.
“I think we are making big strides at receiver. We are learning from each other and getting energy from each other, and we have to continue to get better.”
James and freshman Deion McShane led the Panthers with five catches and a touchdown each against NDSU.
“Jaylin James was the Player of the Game,” UNI head coach Mark Farley said. “He blocked his tail off, made some great catches and a did a tremendous job all day long. He should remember that game. He played as well as you possibly could play at that position for us.”
In addition, the Panthers are getting high level of production from tight ends Briley Moore and Elias Nissen, while Junior Jalen Rima has had back-to-back games with three catches or more, and running backs Trevor Allen and Marcus Weymiller combined for six catches for 60 yards against NDSU.
Redshirt freshman Terrell Carey has been in the mix, and last week, in his second game at receiver after moving over from safety, Suni Lane made a tremendous 18-yard catch while adjusting his body in the air to a pass thrown behind him.
In all, 12 different receivers have caught passes for the Panthers this season.
“As the season has gone on I think the receiving corp. has gotten a lot more comfortable with Eli, who can put the ball anywhere on the field,” Fossey said. “We have a lot of trust in him.
“We’re just trying to get one percent better each and every day and that is starting to pay off. We still have a lot of room to grow, but I think we are seeing steps in our passing game.”
As much as Dunne and his cadre of receivers have improved over five games, credit also needs to be dished out to an offensive line led by left tackle Cal Twait.
“Cal has played very well up front,” Farley said. “(The offensive line) did a great job of pass rush and the things they do with protection (against NDSU).”
UNI will aim to continuing to thrive against a USD defense that ranks eighth in the MVFC in pass defense, allowing 245.2 yards per game.
The Coyotes, however, have been opportunistic defensively in their first two MVFC games, forcing five turnovers — two fumbles and three interceptions, with four of them forced by returning all-conference safety Andrew Gray, who has won back-to-back MVFC defensive player of the week honors.