Five weeks into the spring season and it is obvious Northern Iowa’s offense has struggled to find rhythm.
COVID-19 quarantines and injuries have decimated the Panthers on that side of the ball and every time UNI head coach Mark Farley thinks his team and staff have made the right adaptations for the offense to succeed another curve ball is thrown at them.
UNI got a Burt Blyleven curve ball thrown at them 24 hours before Saturday’s 13-6 loss to Missouri State.
Friday morning, Farley got a call that starting quarterback Will McElvain was placed in a two-week COVID-19 quarantine. Farley knew he was in pickle.
The depth of the situation Farley admits he underestimated.
“The biggest thing when I look back on it was we didn’t adjust…losing that quarterback on Friday morning was tougher to overcome than what I wanted to believe it did,” Farley said Monday.
With that said, Farley said he was impressed with redshirt freshmen Justin Fomby. The 6-foot-3, 195-pound Lawrenceville, Ga. Native completed 18 of 29 passes for 215 yards with one interception.
And Fomby was able to have success despite very little prep work.
For a more than 50 percent of the week, Fomby ran UNI’s scout team offense and got only a few snaps with No. 1 and No. 2 offensive units.
“I thought Justin did a really nice job,” Farley said. “He made me very aware of Justin Fomby because of how he performed. I didn’t know what to expect from him at the time, but he showed he’s a college quarterback with how he threw that football the other night. To go out there with 24 hour notice and throw the football 30 times, complete 62 percent of those … he showed up.
“That is how you make a name for yourself and get another opportunity and he will get another opportunity.”
Fomby will get his second career start this Saturday when UNI (2-3) travels to Macomb, Ill. To play Western Illinois in a 7 p.m. kick.
Having a week to prepare for that game and a game plan tailored to his skill set will only help Fomby says Farley.
“I think the plan can be turned toward him, Farley said. “We all saw what Justin is and we all know what Will is. They are two totally different quarterbacks. Now we can make a plan for Justin.”
A bigger part of the story for UNI is Fomby was third-string four weeks ago and then back-up quarterback Nate Martens was forced to quarantine because of contact tracing and Fomby got all the second team reps in practice while Martens was gone.
“Taking all those reps helped Justin grow and that is where he is today,” Farley said. “This is nuts. We’re going to get Cael Loecher ready to play too. It’s a domino thing … every day is new puzzle.”
Another issue that has really hampered the Panthers is an offensive line that has been decimated by injury more than any unit on UNI’s squad. The Panthers have not started the same lineup up front in any of their five games
It is a unit that took more hits against Missouri State as Justin Peine was knocked out. Projected starters Nick Ellis and Mason Neisen were already ruled out for the season. Added to that is UNI lost starting tight end Jayden Scott to a knee injury before the season and Saturday No. 2 tight end Alex Allen was hurt after catching his first pass of the season and won’t be available Saturday against the Leathernecks.
“We are trying to fight through injury. I look back on it and the continuity of our offensive line and our tight end play … we’ve missed that this whole season. We are trying to find the right combination of players in that front.
“They have done well, but there probably has been too much change in the players out there to get some rhythm with them. We really need to get a group out there and consistently get them to play together, communicate together so they can function together more efficiently.”