The Missouri Valley Football Conference continues its run of exciting games in its shortened spring schedule with yet another matchup between top-10 teams.
The No. 6 Northern Iowa Panthers head to Carbondale to take on the No. 9 Southern Illinois Salukis on Saturday afternoon with heavy postseason implications. With just six at-large bids for the spring playoff, a second defeat for these one-loss teams could spell the end of their championship hopes.
The Panthers are coming off their biggest win of the spring, a 20-10 win over ranked Illinois State. The victory helped validate their No. 3 ranking in Athlon's spring Top 25, as their dominant defensive front shut down the Redbirds.
Southern Illinois, meanwhile, has won two straight games after dropping its contest at North Dakota, including a shocking 38-14 upset win over three-time reigning champion North Dakota State. The Salukis are once again led by their offense, which is up to third in the MVFC at 27.2 points per game, leading to an intriguing strength vs. strength battle on Saturday.
Northern Iowa at Southern Illinois
Kickoff: Saturday, March 13 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Northern Iowa -4
When Northern Iowa Has the Ball
The Panthers' offense hasn't been terribly efficient, but it's done enough to stay in the game, considering the team's great defense. Quarterback Will McElvain is barely completing half of his passes (52.2 percent) and has more interceptions than touchdowns. However, he's also had to work without his top target.
Preseason All-American wide receiver Isaiah Weston has only hauled in two passes for 23 and has missed time due to a leg injury. McElvain has really leaned on TCU transfer Quan Hampton, who has double the production of any other Panthers, with 17 receptions for 179 yards.
Northern Iowa has not gotten much going on the ground, with 3.1 yards per carry and a season-long rush of 17 yards, but Saturday's game could be an opportunity to change that. The Salukis rank 56th out of 76 active FCS teams at 205.5 rushing yards allowed per game.
When Southern Illinois Has the Ball
Southern Illinois' offense was expected to run through Javon Williams Jr., but he's been joined in the backfield by another highly productive back: Romeir Elliott. The former has picked up 251 yards on 57 carries with five touchdowns, while the latter has 309 yards on 63 attempts with three scores.
The two sophomore backs have taken pressure off the quarterback, whether it be Nic Baker and Kare Lyles, who has battled a rib injury. It's been a good problem to have, though, since both have been more productive than their Northern Iowa counterpart. Each is completing more than 65 percent of their passes, although they've combined to throw five interceptions in four games. UNI hasn't picked off a pass yet this season, but that won't continue for long, as the Panthers tied for third in 2019 with 19 interceptions.
Keeping up their offensive efficiency will be key against this dangerous defensive front. Defensive tackle Jared Brinkman, linebacker Bryce Flater, and cornerback Omar Brown give them a star at every level. UNI enters this game seventh in scoring defense, seventh in passing defense, and 19th against the run.
Strong offense against strong defense is a classic matchup, and while the Salukis have an edge at home, the Panthers' stifling front may be too much to overcome. As a play-in game of sorts for the playoffs, this could well be the FCS' game of the week.