CEDAR FALLS — The vibe surrounding the Northern Iowa football team is a little different than it was four weeks ago.
A three-game win streak helps. Rising to No. 5 in the most recent FCS Stats Top 25 poll is a part of it, too. A crack at earning a national seed and a bye in the first round of the FCS Playoffs plays into it as well.
But at the same time, the Panthers (6-3 overall, 4-1 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference) don’t want to get ahead of themselves, especially with a 3-6 Indiana State team coming to the UNI-Dome Saturday.
Yeah, history says the Sycamores have won just once inside the UNI-Dome, and that came in 1988, and they are missing a rash of players expected to contribute in 2019, including quarterback Ryan Boyle, the preseason all-MVFC quarterback who was lost for the season.
“We can’t look to far forward because you will get off task,” senior captain Jaylin James said. “The biggest thing for us is one day, one weekend at a time.”
James adds the Panthers won’t look past the Sycamores.
“Coach Farley (Mark) reminded us that after losing to us (33-0 last season) they won out, and if I’m correct went 7-4,” James said. “They are a really good team. Ryan Boyle gets hurt, and obviously, they aren’t the same team, but they have a lot of talented guys back from that 7-4 team.”
Farley says he thinks Indiana State has recovered from the loss of Boyle and has gradually started to play better and better, adding that the Sycamores were in the game late against Illinois State, trailing only 10-7 at the start of the fourth quarter, and a few plays here or there were the difference in a loss to Southern Illinois last week (23-14).
“You lose a key player like that and it takes the wind out of you a little bit,” Farley said. “I think they have overcome that phase of going through that as a football team because I’d say the last three weeks you can see the improvements and some of the adjustments they’ve made with the players they have now ... they’ve rallied around their other guys and redeveloped a new plan.”
Still, the Sycamores have struggled in conference play where ISU (3-6, 1-4) ranks in the bottom half of the league (conference only) in 18 different categories, including last in scoring offense (12.8), rush defense (230.8) and turnover margin (-7). ISU has committed 21 turnovers, including 13 lost fumbles.
Sycamore head coach Curt Mallory says his team will play hard.
“We’ll lock arms ...,” Mallory said in his weekly press conference. “The harder it gets the harder you work and that is the only way we know how to do it.
“UNI ... we don’t play North Dakota State and it is easy to say until you play somebody, but on film, this will be the best team we have played in conference ... that is on film. That is the case every time with these guys. There is no weakness on this team. A very good football team and it will be a big challenge.”
UNi has some injury problems of its own. Tight end Matthew Vanderslice has not practiced in two weeks but has managed to get on the field each Saturday. Right tackle Spencer Brown has been in the same boat.
Then last week running backs Trevor Allen (concussion) and Tyler Hoosman (ankle) both went down with injuries in the win at Illinois State. On top of a season-ending injury to Alphonso Soko, it could mean the Panthers could play without its top three running backs.
Thursday in his weekly call-in show, Farley said Allen will play, while Hoosman is out.
True freshman Nick McCabe will see an increased role, and expect to see red-shirt freshmen Sam Schnee or Trevon Alexander, a linebacker who came to UNI as a running back, and or one of three true freshmen, Kendall Robinson, Christian Seres or Sam Gary provide relief. It wouldn’t be out of the question to see wide receiver Aaron Graham line up in the backfield, either.
Farley said he’s proud of how his team has responded to all of the injuries on the offensive side of the ball, including the loss of tight ends Briley Moore and Tristan Bohr.
“Liked how they have faced that and haven’t even flinched,” Farley said. “The next guy in has done his job and done it very well.
“It has been great to see our team overcome that adversity, but at the same time you know it is not over. There is a lot of meat left on this bone. That is where I got to make sure they stay in check, not revel in what has happened but look forward to what the possibilities are if you continue to get smarter and stronger as the season goes on.”