Hopes of the FCS Playoffs Hinge on Saturday for UNI Football
Tomorrow, the Panthers play their final regular season home game of the 2021 season.
After defeating the No. 6 South Dakota State Jackrabbits and the No. 3 Southern Illinois Salukis in back to back weeks and catapulting themselves to No. 13 in the country, the purple and gold dropped two away games in a row, falling to unranked Illinois State 17-10 in overtime and No. 16 Missouri State and a last-minute score, 34-27.
After writing about how I believed this is to be one of the best teams to come through Cedar Falls in a while, it'd be easy to get deflated after those two losses -- and to be quite honest, I am.
Showing nothing but dominance defensively and in the ground game, the Panthers had me believing they'd cruise through the rest of their schedule, finishing with an 8-3 record (with understandable losses to Iowa State and North Dakota State, and a fluke to South Dakota), and a first round bye in the playoffs.
Heading into this contest tomorrow, the purple and gold are just hoping to get in. UNI will face off with Western Illinois, the team sitting in second-to-last in the Missouri Valley Football Conference at 2-8. A team with four 20+ point losses so far this season. If the Panthers lose on Saturday, they don't deserve to get in.
Here are your keys to a victory:
The Offense, Especially in the First Half
These, late-game, hopefully-we-can-get-back-in-it drives aren't getting the job done.
Even last week when several things went their way late (the punt off an MSU player's helmet, the incredible catch on 4th down by Deion McShane) the Panthers were unable to keep the Bears from scoring on a 55-yard touchdown pass with less than a minute to play.
There's luck in football, and maybe bad luck can be blamed for the loss last week.
But then there's hard stats.
Over the ten games the Panthers have played so far this season, they've trailed at the half in seven. Of those seven, they've lost five. Not only that, the Cats have scored just two touchdowns in the first half over those seven games. In total, they've scored 32 points -- that's just over 4.5 points a half.
Of the three games UNI has led at the half, they're 3-0.
The Panther offense has to do something in the first half to get going. Whether it's establishing the run (preferably with a healthy Bradrick Shaw if he's available) or taking shots over the top to Isaiah Weston or the speedster McShane, they have to do something.
Though Western Illinois is one of the worst teams in the MVFC by record, the Leathernecks have been able to put up points in bunches at times this season.
They've scored 20+ points in seven of their ten games (which can be difficult in this conference) including putting up 56 points against the No. 5 team in the country, Eastern Washington, in September.
They possess an air-it-out offense that is led by senior Connor Sampson. Through ten games this season, Sampson has completed 282 of 438 passes for 3020 yards and 22 touchdowns. He passes for 302 yards a game. For frame of reference, UNI QB Theo Day has completed 129 of 231 passes for 1886 yards and 14 touchdowns, averaging 209 ypg.
In UNI's last contest, the Panthers allowed 320 yards to MSU quarterback Jason Shelley. Sampson is nowhere near the talent that Shelley is, but it's clear the Leathernecks like to put the ball in the air.
Not to mention, one of the best corners in the FCS, Omar Brown, has missed multiple games due to injury, and Korby Sander went down last week as well for UNI.
Should the Panthers be without two of the best defensive backs in the country, WIU will be licking their chops. However, Sampson has thrown 11 picks so far this season and UNI is tied for seventh in the country with 21 defensive turnovers.
Sampson can put the ball in the air, but the purple and gold can take it away, too.
The Freshness of the Leathernecks
WIU is coming off a very late season bye week, much like the Illinois State had a few weeks ago.
Considering fans (and maybe even some of the players) saw the matchup with the Redbirds as an easy win, UNI can't do the same and overlook the Leathernecks. The Panthers have to defend the dome. Jared Brinkman said it best after the win over Southern Illinois in October:
It's on us. How bad do we want it? ... We know we can't take our foot off the gas. We need to keep the 'Win or go home' mentality like we're in the playoffs.
In order for UNI to get a whiff of the FCS Playoffs, they have to win this game. There's no if, ands, or buts about it. We'll see what they can do amidst injuries, adversity, and playing a team they should easily defeat.