The 5-4 Northern Iowa Panthers are red hot. After starting the season 0-3, UNI has bounced back and won five of their last six, including three in a row.

Last week UNI beat No. 20 Southern Illinois, holding the Salukis off till literally the last second, and stealing a victory in Carbondale, 37-36.

They face another test this weekend against the No. 1 team in the country, the South Dakota State Jackrabbits. Here are three things to watch in a matchup that could make or break the Panthers' season.

The Turnover Margin

In the last decade, these two teams have played each other 12 times with each team taking the victory six times.

When the Jackrabbits have won over the last ten years, their turnover margin is an average of +0.83, and when the Panthers have come out on top, their margin is an average of +1.33.

With two teams that don't turn the ball over much, that's a huge indicator of who will win the game on Saturday.

Throughout the 2022 season, UNI has lost ten turnovers -- only one of which came from a starter over the last three games. Theo Day hasn't thrown an interception since the 20-14 victory over Indiana State on October 1. The defense has forced 12 turnovers in total, eight of which have come from interceptions.

South Dakota State is among the best in the country in turnover margin, ranking fifth at 1.33 per contest. In total, the Jacks have forced 18 while giving up just six all season. In just the last three weeks, the SDSU defense has forced six turnovers against North Dakota State (one interception), North Dakota (Two INT, one fumble recovery), and Indiana State (one INT, one FR).

Whoever proves to take the ball away the most will have a major edge in Saturday's game.

Can UNI Stop Isaiah Davis?

After four years of Pierre Strong running all over the Missouri Valley Football Conference for the Jackrabbits, Isaiah Davis has stepped into the starting running back role in Brookings. In the eight games he's played so far this season, the junior has rushed for 777 yards and eight touchdowns.

Though Strong was widely considered the best back in the FCS at times in his career, the All-American could never really get things going when SDSU played UNI. Over the four games he played against the Panthers, Strong put up just 164 yards and one touchdown on 47 carries. That's encouraging heading into next week and facing the next iteration of talented South Dakota State running backs, Davis.

However, in the words of Jackrabbit Illustrated's Matt Tollefson who previewed the game with me for Cornstalks and Sports Talk,

Isaiah Davis and Pierre Strong are not similar in any way. ... Pierre was definitely a faster player and Isaiah is more of a powerful player.

There are a couple of things to note regarding the SDSU run game, too.

If you get rid of the Air Force game (which is relevant, considering the Falcons' unique offense and the fact UNI is one of few teams that hasn't had a bye), the Panther run defense is allowing just 3.4 yards per carry, and it would rank 15th in the country in total rushing yards allowed.

Additionally, Davis may have a lingering injury he's dealing with. This is what Tollefson said:

He did get a bit banged up against NDSU, he didn't play against UND, and then he just played the first half against Indiana State. It was just a precautionary thing with the score being out of hand at halftime.

How Full will the UNI-Dome be?

The Northern Iowa Athletic Department is making a push to fill the seats in Cedar Falls on Saturday, considering the implications of the game -- playing the No. 1 team in the country and the fact that the Panthers are making a run at the FCS playoffs.

The department has taken several steps to increase attendance at the game:

  • Starting at 1 PM on Tuesday of this week, the department launched a 24-hour flash sale, where tickets to the game were just $10
  • There will be a $1,000 scholarship given to one student in attendance
  • Military or first responders who present their ID cards at the UNITix office get free tickets to the game, and family and friends can buy tickets for $10

A message was even released by UNI Athletic Director David Harris:

But the question remains -- how many people will be in the stands on Saturday?

If the Cedar Valley turns out in a big way, the Panthers will have another added edge over the Jackrabbits come game time. When fans make it loud, communication between teammates is difficult on the field, and the Panthers need all the help they can get.

Theo Day said it himself on this week's Wednesday episode of Cornstalks and Sports Talk:

You can purchase tickets to the game here.

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