Two of the best teams in the Missouri Valley Football Conference — let alone the entire FCS — are meeting at the UNI-Dome on Friday night when South Dakota State Northern Iowa face off.
The Jackrabbits and Panthers have lived in North Dakota State's shadow for the past decade, they've each established themselves as powerhouses in their own right. SDSU has made eight straight playoff appearances, while UNI has finished the season ranked in five of the last six seasons.
Both teams are projected to make the FCS playoffs once again — if not do more. They're both in the top five of Athlon Sports' preseason FCS rankings and have a combined five members of Athlon's preseason FCS All-America Team.
If history is any guide, this one will be close once again. South Dakota State and Northern Iowa have alternated wins in each of their last eight matchups, and three of those games were decided by a field goal. Given that each of these teams ranked in the top 10 of the FCS in total and scoring defense, this should be a low-scoring, tough affair.
South Dakota State at Northern Iowa
Kickoff: Friday, Feb. 19 at 8 p.m. ET
Spread: South Dakota State -3.5
When South Dakota State Has the Ball
The Jackrabbits' offense begins with running back Pierre Strong Jr., who has rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons in Brookings. Although he's not much of a threat in the passing game (253 rec. yds. over 24 games), he's hard to bring down and has averaged 8.2 yards per attempt for his college career.
The Panthers should have the means to stop Strong, though. They have stars at every level of defense in tackle Jared Brinkman, cornerback Omar Brown, and linebacker Bryce Flater. The Panthers didn't get to see much of Strong last season because he exited their November 2019 game with a season-ending knee injury after just three carries for 14 yards. However, UNI held SDSU to 150 yards on 37 carries in their first matchup (3.8 ypc) and 53 yards on 23 carries (2.3) in their second-round playoff victory over their MVFC rivals.
A strong running performance will be even more crucial for the Jacks because they'll have to replace top receiver Cade Johnson, who is preparing for the NFL draft. Johnson led the team with 1,222 receiving yards, and no other teammate even reached 500. A major key for South Dakota State this season will be how quarterback J'Bore Gibbs, who battled through injuries last season and completed just 58.9 percent of his passes, performs without his safety net.
When Northern Iowa Has the Ball
With Trey Lance off to the NFL, Will McElvain can make a case to be the best quarterback in the MVFC. He finished third in the conference with 2,778 passing yards as a freshman last season and had an impressive 20:7 touchdown-to-interception ratio. It doesn't hurt to have an outstanding target in 6-foot-4 wideout Isaiah Weston, eighter, who hauled in 43 passes for 1,053 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2019.
While South Dakota State doesn't have as many decorated defenders as Northern Iowa does, their unit is strong in its own right. In particular, defensive end Reece Winkelman, linebacker Logan Backhaus, and safety Joshua Manchigiah are the players to keep an eye on.
UNI was able to win the playoff matchup 13-10 but will likely need more offensive output this time around. McElvain went 11-for-20 for 124 yards and one interception in the win, which may not sound good, but it was better than his 12-for-24, three-pick performance in the loss a month earlier. The sophomore will need to figure out this Jackrabbits defense to have a chance on Friday.
It's been more than a year since either team has played a competitive game, so there are plenty of unknowns as far as how they'll look after all this time off. The one thing that is near-certain is that the defenses will be looking strong once again.
UNI will allow 2,715 fans to attend the game, and they'll try to make it as hostile as possible with a blackout theme. Will that give much of a home-field advantage? Results have been mixed, especially in the pros. Either way, it should be an exciting way to welcome back college football.