Air Force will kick off a season that is filled with potential against a team that could be filled with potential danger.
The Northern Iowa Panthers arrive in Colorado Springs with a long track record of being a top tier powerhouse in FCS. Their record includes 16 Missouri Valley Conference championships and 22 trips to the FCS Championship Tournament.
Most prognosticators see more of the same for Panther football this year. ESPN’s SP+ has Northern Iowa as the 9th best team in FCS, mostly due to a defense it foresees as the best in FCS. Jeff Sagarin’s computer rankings see the Panthers as FCS’s fourth best team, with a rating higher than MW members UNLV, Hawaii, and New Mexico.
Scouting the Panthers
The first thing that stands out when researching the Panthers is the prowess of the defense at defending the running game. Last year they averaged only 87.1 rushing yards allowed per game, at the rate of 2.5 yards allowed per attempt.
The linebacking group is top notch, led by a pair of preseason FCS All Americans, Spencer Cuvalier and Bryce Flater. Last year they totaled 145 tackles and 10.5 tackles for loss.
On the defensive line, UNI will be replacing two outstanding linemen, Jared Brinkman and Tim Butcher, but return DE Caden Houghtelling, who produced 51 tackles, 10 TFLs, and 5.5 sacks last year.
In the defensive backfield, the headliner is preseason FCS All American Benny Sapp, who had 52 tackles, 4 interceptions, and 3 PBUs last year.
The offense was inconsistent last year with Michigan State transfer QB Theo Day directing the offense. As a result, the Panthers have two new co-Offensive Coordinators, Bodie Reeder and Ryan Clanton. Clanton has been the offensive line coach the last four years, producing two NFL draftees the last two years. Reeder was an offensive coordinator at Utah State. Day is also now in a competition with QB Matt Morrissey for the starting position.
Not surprisingly, SP+ sees Northern Iowa’s offense as only the 74th best offense in FCS. Last year the Panthers averaged 25 points and 364 yards per game, balanced between 141 rushing yards and 223 passing yards. The offense was plagued by mistakes; 23 turnovers, 35 sacks allowed, and 53 penalty yards per game. Compare that to the Falcons 10 turnovers, 12 sacks allowed, and 39 penalty yards allowed per game. The Panthers were also ineffective on converting third and fourth down opportunities with conversion rates of 32 and 28 percent respectively.
The players to watch are running backs Dom Williams and Vance McShane, who averaged 6.0 and 5.4 yards per carry, and receivers Quan Hampton and Deion McShane.
The Panthers placekicker, Matthew Cook, is among the best in the country. He was named to multiple FCS All American first teams, and last year was 19-22 on field goals, including 9-10 from 40-49 yards and 2-3 from over 50 yards.
Barring any further injuries, starters Haaziq Daniels, Brad Roberts, Kyle Patterson, and Vince Sanford should all be ready to go on opening day.
Jenson Jones seems to have solidified his position as QB #2, with Zach Larrier taking snaps at multiple positions - tailback, slot receiver, and quarterback.
The offensive line has been impressive in practice with 8 or 9 solid linemen who will be in the rotation. Starters will be Kaleb Holcomb, Wesley Ndago, Thor Paglialong, Isaac Cochran, and Everett Smalley. Luke Hallstrom, Ayden McCollough, Mark Hiestand, and Adam Karras will rotate in frequently.
On the defensive line, likely starters are Jayden Thiergood, Kalawaia Pescaia, and Chris Herrera. Elijah Brockman has taken snaps at both nose guard and DT. Caden Blum has moved from tight end to DL to add depth.
With the crowd of talent at inside linebacker, Bo Richter has ben practicing on the outside, probably for situations when running plays are in the cards (like the CIC games). Camby Goff will start at strong safety, while Jayden Goodwin has moved to spur linebacker (or nickel, as Coach Calhoun has been calling it lately). Zion Kelley was absent in early practices, but has returned to the team as a backup, and Michael Mack and Eian Castanguay will start at cornerbacks.
Coach Calhoun generally employs a very basic game plan in these opening day games, focusing on execution, rotations, and getting game experience. With 8 or 9 (maybe more) O linemen cycling through the game, the Falcons will be trying to wear down the strong front 7 of the Panthers. The elevation of Falcon Field will play into that, 6000 feet above the elevation of Cedar Falls, IA. I would also expect to see all three fullbacks play, providing the benefit of not asking too much of Brad Roberts as he returns from off season surgery. I wouldn’t expect more than ten passing plays unless the Falcons get significantly behind.
On defense, the Falcons might dial up the pass rush a little. Last year they were able to create good pressure on the QB with just a four man rush, thanks to the presence of Jordan Jackson, Chris Herrera, and Vince Sanford. With the departure of Jackson, we might see a another linebacker or safety added to the rush. The Panthers had some vulnerability in this area last year. As always however, the primary goal will be to stop the run and make the Panthers put the ball in the air.
I think the Falcons will handle the Panthers pretty easily after they wear down the defense with the multiple look running game. Falcons win 31-13.