You have to wonder why Iowa State keeps agreeing to play Northern Iowa at this point. ISU has lost to its in-state rival three times in the past 10 seasons, including last year. The Panthers and Cyclones battled back and forth in their 2016 season opener, with Northern Iowa scoring the game-winning touchdown with under three minutes left to go in the fourth quarter after a back-breaking interception from Iowa State QB Joel Lanning.
Despite the win over an FBS opponent, Northern Iowa really struggled last season. The Panthers suffered tough losses against Montana and Eastern Washington in non-conference play and went just 4-4 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference to finish the year 5-6.
Northern Iowa was very unfortunate to finish under .500. All of the Panthers’ losses but one came by six points or less, and this team hung close with some of the best teams in FCS.
The Panthers should be much better on offense this season than they were in 2016. Northern Iowa didn’t have a passing game through the first half of last year. Aaron Bailey started the season at quarterback and didn’t throw interceptions, but he was ineffective at moving the ball. He only completed 51.5 percent of his passes and averaged under 6.5 yards per throw.
Enter Eli Dunne. He took over the starting role midway through last year, and the passing game took off with him at the helm. He averaged 7.9 yards per attempt and completed 63.8 percent of his passes.
The big issue with Dunne was turnovers. He threw an interception on over five percent of his passes, and some of those giveaways were backbreakers. This season, Dunne should be much better after having game experience and a full offseason to prep as the starter.
He has a playmaker that has yet to be unleashed in wide receiver Daurice Fountain. He was lights out against Southern Illinois last season, hauling in three touchdown passes, but he was underused the rest of the year. He is the one receiver on the roster that can have some success against a veteran Iowa State secondary.
Northern Iowa didn’t have much of a run game last season, averaging 3.9 yards per carry. This facet should be better though with a more experienced offensive line. Every projected starter up front began at least a handful of games in 2016, save for right tackle Bryce Sweeney.
Sweeney was sidelined all of last season with a back injury after being a force in 2015. That year, he was a big reason behind the Panthers finishing No. 15 in the FCS in rushing offense and helped pave the way for two 1,000-yard rushers. Sweeney and left tackle Cal Twait are the two best players on the offensive line and should be able to open up some holes against an Iowa State run defense that returns just one starter on a unit that allowed five yards per carry in 2016.
The Panthers defense matches up very well against the Cyclones offense. Northern Iowa had one of the best run-stuffing units in the country last season, allowing just 3.3 yards per carry. Although they lose all-everything Karter Schult, this should be a very good run defense once again.
Iowa State’s offensive line is very inexperienced and suffered a big hit with the retirement of graduate transfer David Dawson. He saw his playing time at Michigan dwindle as Jim Harbaugh took control of the program but was expected to be a big contributor on this unit. However, he announced his retirement just a month ago and leaves the Cyclones in a bad spot. Only one starter returns to this unit, and he is an underclassman. Linebacker Jared Farley could have a big game against this team.
Northern Iowa’s secondary has to shut down Iowa State’s only offensive weapon to win. Allen Lazard was a first-team All-Big 12 selection last year and is the only real playmaker for the Cyclones. He had over half the team’s receiving yards when these two teams met last season. Fortunately, the Panthers have a very talented secondary led by Malcolm Washington and Elijah Campbell.
This game is currently lined in the double digits, but that’s way off. Northern Iowa typically gives this Iowa State team fits and is better than it was last season. The Panthers have a great chance of pulling off the upset.