The Northern Iowa Panthers return home to host the Illinois State Redbirds on Saturday, with the Redbirds coming off a seven-point home loss to South Dakota while the Panthers are riding high after a 21-0 road shutout of Youngstown State last week.
That win was a welcome turn of events for head coach Mark Farley's group, who dropped its season opener 24-20 to then-No. 5 South Dakota State — Northern Iowa's first home loss since Oct. 6, 2018. Meanwhile, Illinois State's season-opening loss dropped the Redbirds from No. 9 all the way to No. 14 in Athlon Sports' FCS Power Poll.
Illinois State at Northern Iowa
Kickoff: Saturday, March. 6 at 5 p.m. ET
Spread: Northern Iowa -8.5
When Illinois State Has the Ball
After attempting just 34 passes as a freshman in 2019, Redbirds quarterback Bryce Jefferson nearly equaled that figure last week alone against South Dakota. Jefferson completed 15 of his 33 attempts for 280 yards and a touchdown, but his four interceptions in the game — combined with his three in 2019 — present a troubling pattern that head coach Brock Spack and his staff will look to rectify. A promising sign, however, is Jefferson's ability to hit on the deep ball. Last week, he found Taylor Grimes and Austin Nagel for connections of 59 and 58 yards, respectively, as Nagel led all Redbirds with five catches for 132 yards while Grimes' 59-yard reception marked his only catch and Jefferson's lone touchdown of the game.
As Jefferson looks to find some rhythm and bring the passing game out from its bottom-10 finish a season ago, he'll need some support from a rushing attack that lost its top ball carrier from 2019. The departure of James Robinson — Illinois State's second all-time leading rusher — means that increased rushing opportunities are available for Jefferson as well as Pha'leak Brown and Nigel White, the latter two of whom combined for 105 rushing yards last week while Jefferson added 65 yards on the ground.
Northern Iowa possessed one of the top defenses in FCS in 2019, finishing in the top 10 nationally in fumbles recovered (15, 4th in FCS), defensive touchdowns (four, 5th), scoring defense (17.7 points allowed, 7th), and total defense (297.7 ypg, 9th). The unit took a slight step back in the season-opening loss to South Dakota State by allowing 24 points — including 17 in the first half — but buckled down and kept Youngstown State off the scoreboard last week. That momentum will be crucial for UNI to avoid dropping its first two home contests to open the 2021 spring campaign.
When Northern Iowa Has the Ball
Will McElvain remained under center for the Panthers to begin the spring season after holding the starting job as a redshirt freshman in 2019, and while his numbers haven't been sparkling, he has shown steady growth in his young career. After setting the school record for passing in 2019 with 2,778 yards, he's totaled just 343 yards and a touchdown over the first two games this season. On the receiving side, Quan Hampton (12 rec.) is the only one with double-digit receptions — which he's turned into 139 yards — while Tysen Kershaw has pulled in McElvain's only touchdown pass thus far.
Northern Iowa's run game struggled mightily in 2019, and it hasn't gotten off to much better of a start this season either. The Panthers rushed for 110.9 yards per game last season, and across their first two contests of 2021, they've mustered 109.5 per game. Graduate transfer running back Dom Williams has taken over after spending the bulk of his career with Kansas, but he's tallied just 63 yards on the ground with two touchdowns in the first two games. Despite missing the season opener, Tyler Hoosman actually leads the team in rushing thanks to his 12 carries for 68 yards against Youngstown State.
As good as Northern Iowa's defense was in 2019 and has been to start this spring, Illinois State's was right up there as well. The Panthers had the edge in total defense (UNI: 9th in FCS, Illinois State: 11th) and barely edged out the Redbirds in takeaways (Northern Iowa: 34, Illinois State: 33), but the Redbirds posted top-five marks in sacks (52, 3rd) and scoring defense (16.0, 4th), and their 19 interceptions finished tied for the Missouri Valley Football Conference lead... with Northern Iowa. Despite Illinois State's seven-point loss to South Dakota last week, some bright spots emerged in the play of Shanon Reid — who tied for the team lead with seven tackles while adding a sack and two TFLs — as well as John Ridgeway who also notched seven tackles and picked up the Redbirds' only interception of the game.
Both these teams lost their season openers to opponents from the state of South Dakota, but Northern Iowa has the benefit of momentum after rebounding in a big way last week against Youngstown State. That positive energy plus the return home will pose a challenge as Illinois State goes on its first road trip of the season, though the Redbirds carry a defense that has proven itself capable on a number of fronts.
Prediction: Northern Iowa 24, Illinois State 17
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.