CEDAR FALLS – There will be some minor tweaks that the naked eye won’t catch.
But when it comes right down to it, Northern Iowa head coach Mark Farley says second-ranked North Dakota State, the Panthers opponent inside the UNI-Dome Saturday, is not all that different from what it was five years ago or five weeks ago.
“When I say the same you can say the same thing about us when you look at what they do and what we do,” Farley said. “We’ve both been consistently at the top of this league and usually when you are doing the right things you stay with those things.”
As it typically is in any given season over the last decade, the NDSU (5-1) and UNI (3-3) game will have a lot of eyes on it when the two kickoff at 4 p.m. Part of the reason for that is it is only one of two of the five Missouri Valley Football Conference games scheduled for Saturday that will be played.
Youngstown State at Missouri State will be the other game played, while Western Illinois at Southern Illinois, North Dakota at Illinois State and South Dakota at South Dakota State all have been canceled because of different COVID-19 stoppages or teams electing to back out of the spring season.
Even the Bison-Panthers game has been affected by COVID.
NDSU has not played since beating North Dakota, 34-13, on March 20. A game on March 27 was canceled with the Bison already in Vermillion, S.D., on the day of the game because of COVID-19 issues within NDSU’s Tier 1 personnel. That forced the postponement of its next game at home against South Dakota State inside the Fargodome to be moved to April 17.
After playing six straight games to open the spring season, UNI was preparing to load its buses to travel to South Dakota when its game with the Coyotes on April 2 was canceled last Thursday.
Overcoming the loss of that game is an obstacle for the Panthers.
“That is the challenge right now,” Farley said. “We were ramped up and ready to play and then had the rug pulled out from underneath us. It is really disheartening. Now you have to overcome that emotion as much as the game itself.”
Farley said dealing and adapting with COVID 19 cancellations and players being placed quarantine and not available every day for seven straight weeks has worn him out. And if it has worn Farley, he wonders what kind of effect it has had on his players and how does he recharge his team to play at lease one more game.
And as far as NDSU goes, he once again reiterated the Bison look like the Bison and the only difference is the names on the back of NDSU’s jerseys. In particular Farley was asked about Bison quarterback Zeb Noland and how that changes NDSU’s offense.
“I think the offense is the same,” Farley said. “It is what can they do with the quarterback they have. The offense changed when they had Wentz (Carson). They offense changed when they had Lance (Trey). The offense is tweaked a little bit with the quarterback they are playing with.
“Everybody could draw up the same basic plays they are going to run but then they are going to tweak it based on the talent of the quarterback they have.”
Noland is not as mobile as NDSU’s last three quarterbacks – Wentz, Easton Stick or Lance – but that has not fundamentally changed how the Bison have got the job done.
In NDSU’s 4-1 spring season it has clicked when the run game has clicked. In the Bison’s four victories they have averaged 246.2 rushing yards. In NDSU’s 38-14 loss to Southern Illinois the Bison rushed for just 109 yards.
And it hasn’t matter whom NDSU has handed the ball too. The Bison running back group has been hit hard by injuries.
In addition to losing Adam Cofield to Western Kentucky by transfer, the Bison saw Seth Wilson lost for the season with injury and back-ups Kobe Johnson and Jalen Bussey have been slowed by injuries.
That left NDSU with former fullback Hunter Luepke and true freshman Dominic Gonnella in the game with North Dakota. The 6-foot-1 Luepke switched from fullback to tailback in that game and rushed for 190 yards on 28 carries and three scores. Gonnella in his first action carried it 12 times for 83 yards.
UNI freshman wide receiver Logan Wolf says there is one thing the offense can do to help the defense.
“We got to be able to control the line of scrimmage, take shots and make plays, definitely on third down,” Wolf said. “We got to finish. We’ve struggled in the red zone or fringe of the red zone. We have to take it in and finish.
“We know what they are capable so we have to take control of the ball and have our defense in mind. Having the ball keeps them off the field and hopefully allows us to score more points.”
UNI has scored on 16 of 18 trips inside the 20 this season, but only eight of those scores have been touchdowns.
The week of rest could only have helped an injury-riddled offensive unit.
Sophomore quarterback Will McElvain will make his return to the lineup after missing games with Missouri State and Western Illinois because of COVID protocols, and receivers Isaiah Weston and Wolf had another seven days to get closer to 100 percent after playing in limited capacity the past two games.
“He will start,” Farley said of McElvain.
“He was rusty and he was fresh,” added Farley of McElvain’s first week back on the practice field last week.
The importance of the game and the razor thin margin the Panthers have of making the 16-team FCS playoff field is on the UNI’s players minds.
“Absolutely, it is a must win,” Wolf said. “It will be a playoff type atmosphere. We got to come out like it is the last one were going to play and treat it as playoff game. We don’t win and there is not much chance we make it. We got to take care of business and show what we can do agianst a very talented team.”