Panthers looking for consistency as they prepare for Western Illinois

JIM NELSON [email protected]

Usually the easiest question of the week for Northern Iowa football coach Mark Farley to answer on a Monday is something about the Panthers next opponent.

But the different and unusual COVID spring season has made it not that simple.

Farley and his coaching staff probably had a pretty good idea what to expect from Western Illinois, the Panthers opponent Saturday in Macomb, Ill in a 11 a.m. kickoff, on Monday.

But like UNI learned last week in preparing for its game with Missouri State no plan can be set in stone. The Panthers lost starting quarterback Will McElvain 24 hours before kickoff to COVID protocols and changed a lot of a meticulous made game plan.

“That used to be the simplest question of the day coming into a Monday,” Farley reiterated.

“I will be dealing with Western on Thursday,” Farley continued laughing.

The game plan for the Leathernecks was most likely set well before Thursday, but Farley wants his team to remain ever vigilante and being ready at all times to change things on the fly.

“There is no sense trying to control something you can’t control,”Farley said. “It is how to adapt to it. That is what I’m trying to make our team understand.”

The focus for the Panthers this week has been as much about finding more consistency on offense and continuing to play consistently on defense while also seeing improvement within that unit.

Specifically, a small goal would to be able to start the same group of offensive linemen Saturday as it did against Missouri State.

Farley believes if Antione Frazier (right tackle), Erik Sorensen (right guard), Chase Arends (center), Justin Peine (left guard) and Trevor Penning (left tackle) were able to practice and start the second week in a role would help alleviate some communication and consistency issues the offense has had.

UNI has not started the same starting lineup in the offensive line in back-to-back weeks this season, and that could hold true because Peine, who was trying to play through an injury, was not able to finish the game with Missouri State.

“We are trying to find a combination of players in that front along with tight ends to play,” Farley said. “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.”

UNI will be without McElvain again this week as he remains in quarantine, but with a week of extra preparation for redshirt freshman Justin Fomby, who will make his second consecutive start, as well as with back-up Nate Martens, will also help with the aforementioned communication and consistency.

“What he did with the time he had was really good,” Farley said of Fomby. “Third-down penalties, communication penalties and some football things happened in that game (Missouri State). A lot of those things were controllable had Justin had more of an opportunity to practice with the first unit.”

Another bonus for UNI is all-American wide receiver Isaiah Weston and talented freshmen receiver Logan Wolf are getting closer and closer to playing larger roles within the offense. Against the Bears, both players played, but played limited roles.

Farley anticipates Weston and Wolf to play more snaps against the Leathernecks.

“We are not going to make an excuse for anything,” Farley said. “The next guy in has to step up and play. I told you I’d would play this whole thing with freshmen if I had too, and I will. That is just who we are.

“I don’t think it is right to start something and not attack it with everybody we have.”

Saturday’s game has already had one change, the kickoff time. The game was originally slated to kickoff at 7 p.m., but was moved to 11 a.m. Tuesday.

The Leathernecks (0-4) are looking for their first win.

Offensively, WIU has run the ball just 87 times in four games while it has passed the ball 188 times, more than a 2-to-1 pass-run ratio.

Wide receivers Dennis Houston (33 receptions for 310 yards), Tony Tate (25-251) and Dallas Daniels (23-251) are among the Missouri Valley Football Conference receptions leaders.

Defensively, the Leathernecks are giving up 34.8 points per game and have been unable to stop the run as opponents are averaging 248 rushing yards and 487 total yards per game against WIU.