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2021 Game I: #7 Iowa State vs. Northern Iowa Football Preview

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Iowa State looks to pick up where they left off in January

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2021 Game I: #7 Iowa State (0-0, 0-0) vs. University of Northern Iowa (0-0, 0-0 MVC)

Date: Saturday, September 4th, 2021

Time: 3:30 P.M. CST

Location: MidAmerican Energy Field at Jack Trice Stadium, Ames, IA

Capacity: 61,500

Line: ISU

Television: ESPN+/XII Now

Radio: Cyclone Radio Network

Game Notes/Release

UNI Game Notes

SB Nation Website - N/A

It has finally arrived. The 2021 season brings unprecedented excitement and high voltage expectations to Ames this Saturday. Most importantly, it resurrects a packed Jack Trice Stadium for the most important in-state game this season. Fresh off their spring football season (due to COVID), Northern Iowa is in town and promises to be a tricky opponent. Our advice? Let’s table the never-ending realignment talk for one day and simply watch our beloved Cyclones take the field.

When we last left off....

When we last saw this Iowa State team, the Cyclones had bounced back from a less than stellar appearance at the Big 12 Championship and were celebrating their hard-earned PlayStation Fiesta Bowl victory over the Oregon Ducks. Breece Hall rushed for 136 yards and two touchdowns on the way to a 34-17 victory. The Cyclones absolutely dominated the time of possession and locked down any chance for Oregon to gain momentum. The feather in the helmet? It was the first New Years Six bowl appearance and win in program history for Iowa State. Not a bad way to send off the 2020 season...

The Cyclones did finish with some holes to plug, though. JaQuan Bailey, Lawrence White and Dylan Soehner were all essential players from the 2020 team that ISU will need to replace. The coaching staff has some options to fill these spots and it will be something to watch unfold over the course of the season.

Northern Iowa Tidbits

Northern Iowa is coming off a spring season due to the FCS moving their season in response to Covid-19. The Panthers were scheduled to play eight games but had one cancellation (again, Covid-19) against South Dakota and finished the season 3-4. The spring season was the first time since 2016 that Northern Iowa finished with a losing record.

Panthers Head Coach Mark Farley commented on last season, “You couldn’t get rhythm in anything. I call last season a disaster. Our guys played hard, they played well, but how we want to run our program and what we are, there was really no consistency to do it because every day there was a new set of rules or something you had to adapt and change to. It’s nobody’s fault, just, from start to finish it was bite your lip, don’t question it, and do the best you can with what you have.”

Northern Iowa was tabbed to finish fifth in the Missouri Valley Conference behind the front runners South Dakota State, North Dakota State, North Dakota, and Southern Illinois. The Panthers return all 11 starts on both sides of the ball. Northern Iowa will go into the season as the 23rd ranked in the Stats Perform FCS Preseason Top 25.

The Series

Iowa State leads the all time series 32-6-3. While there have been three ties in this clash of arguably the two best teams in the state, Iowa State has still won the last two meetings - and the last game went into overtime. We’ve decided to ignore that one.

Iowa State Offense

The Cyclones will return all 11 starters on the offensive side of the ball, highlighted by reigning Big 12 offensive player of the year Breece Hall, and the most decorated quarterback in Iowa State history, Brock Purdy. Additionally Iowa State brings a depth on the offensive line, including proven weapons on the outside, found in Charlie Kolar and Hutchison.

The Cyclones rode the running game heavily in 2021 in large part due to a monster year from Breece Hall, not to mention opposing teams showing an unwillingness to stop him. We expect much the same to be seen again but won’t count out Brock Purdy from filling up the stat sheet. Our Cyclone quarterback is clearly on a mission to show himself and the world that he is an elite quarterback.

First Key to Victory - Control The Line of Scrimmage

Iowa State’s offensive line took a major step forward last season and showed themselves as one of the top offensive lines in the country. The Cyclone maulers finished as a semifinalist for the Joe Moore Award, given to the nation’s top offensive line. Collin Newell and Trevor Downing are some of the best lineman in the entire country, both of whom will garner serious NFL considerations after the season. Collectively the Cyclones return all seven (different) starters from 2020 which have 93 starts across the seven of them.

Last year in games where Iowa State dominated, the offensive line was one of the biggest reasons why. The big boys up front leaned on opposing defenses all game long and simply wore. them. down. This is exactly what Matt Campbell wants to happen year in and year out. In 2016, if you had told us that Iowa State’s strength would be the offensive line in only five years, I would have laughed in your face.

Newell will be huge to the game plan on Saturday
cyclones.com

Expect Saturday’s game to be one where the Cyclones use that newly found offensive strength to wear down the Northern Iowa front. With the Panthers coming off a spring season, they maybe not be fully back to full health, and ISU can exploit that potential weakness with ease.

Northern Iowa Defense

Despite having a down year in the win column, the Northern Iowa defense is once again solid. The Panthers were the second ranked scoring defensive in the Missouri Valley Conference, allowing around 15 points per game. The unit is led by reigning MVC defensive player of the year and consensus All-American, Jared Brinkman. Brinkman led the Missouri Valley with nine tackles for loss this past spring. Additionally he boasted three quarterback hurries and forced two fumbles.

Brinkman a force to be reckoned with and he isn’t the only one. Northern Iowa’s defensive line coach, Bryce Paup, has shown an ability to develop pass rushers in his two stints at Northern Iowa. Northern Iowa’s defensive line earned top-15 rankings in Paup’s second year of coaching. The defensive line coach also had the Panthers consistently near the top of the FCS is total sacks.

UNI Defensive Lineman Jared Brinkman
unipanthers.com

Behind them are a few others who earned All-MVS honors. Linebacker Spencer Cuvelier led the conference in tackles last spring. All-MVC defensive backs Omar Brown and Austin Evans are also returning players for the Panthers.

The Verdict - Iowa State

Iowa State holds the advantage in the trenches despite Northern Iowa having a great defensive lineman in Jared Brinkman. we fully expect Iowa State to come out focused on running it down the Panthers throat and wearing them down - just like the Fiesta Bowl. The Cyclones won’t show much of their hand before the Cy-Hawk game, but their talent and physicality will take over early in the first game of the season.

Iowa State Defense

Iowa State brings back nine of their key contributors from the second ranked Big 12 defense last season, including reigning Big 12 Defensive Player of The Year, Mike Rose. Once again this unit is looking to improve from a year ago, which says a lot considering the Cyclones gave up only 16 total second half points in the final five games of 2020. That’s certainly something to be proud of.

The Cyclones will have to replace JaQuan Bailey, an instrumental part of Iowa State’s defense for the last five years. To help with the transition, Will McDonald and the always reliable Enyi Uwazurike are both back to shore up any shortcomings. Iowa State will be searching for a third pass rusher, but they have some options to fill that void.

McDonald has his eyes on the sack record
cyclones.com

The strongest unit on the Iowa State defense is the linebackers, headlined by the afore mentioned Mike Rose. Joining Rose once again are O’rien Vance and Jake Hummel, followed quickly by some intriguing players. Gerry Vaughn and Aric Horne are two players that have the staff excited for the future of the linebacker position following this season. We expect to see them quite often this season, helping to rest the starters.

Iowa State’s secondary is where we find more questions. Anthony Johnson, Isheem Young and Greg Eisworth are all back and will be at the ready for this defense, but we’re scratching our heads on the final safety position and cornerback spot. We assume Villanova transfer JaQuan Amos will land at the final safety spot, while T. J. Tampa, Tayvon Kyle and Datrone Young will find themselves at the other corner position.

Northern Iowa Offense

Northern Iowa’s offense did not have a good spring. Things got off to a rough start when then Offensive Coordinator Ryan Mahaffey left for a job with the Green Bay Packers just one day before the season began. One thing led to another and the Panthers did not have a good season offensively. Northern Iowa only averaged 19 points a game and scored only 13 touchdowns over the course of seven games.

Will McElvain is back for the Panthers. The Des Moines, LA native burst onto the scene in 2019 against Iowa State, throwing for over 228 yards and one touchdown. He went on to finish the 2019 campaign with 20 touchdowns. Last season McElvain only appeared in five games for the Panthers due to COVID-19 quarantine.

Will McElvain
Des Moines Register

Adding to the pile-on, Northern Iowa had one of the worst rushing attacks in all FCS last season. The Panthers could only get just over three yards a carry and just over 100 for each game. Couple this with the uncertainty each week at quarterback, and it has led to some tough times offensively in Cedar Falls.

The Panthers do have an NFL ready offensive lineman back this season. Trevor Penning, the 6’ 7” offensive tackle is on NFL teams’ radars for the 2022 draft. It will certainly make for an interesting matchup if Will McDonald is paired up with him during the game.

Second Key to Victory - Limit The Run Game and Play Extensions

Iowa State found themselves in trouble in 2019 against Northern Iowa when Will McElvain was scrambling and extending the time the defensive backs had to cover. Where McElvain tends to struggle is inside the pocket and going through progressions. Iowa State is much better defensively than they were in 2019 and this will be critical to the success on Saturday.

The second key is Northern Iowa’s limited dimensionality through the air. In years past, UNI has been able to run the ball against Iowa State. They’ve sucked up the clock and kept it close. Iowa State will need to actively prevent the Panthers from gaining momentum on the ground and force them to throw from the pocket.

The Verdict - Iowa State

These are not the same teams they were in 2019. Iowa State’s defense is much more prepared for anything that Northern Iowa may attempt to throw at them. We don’t see a path where the Panthers have improved their run game in any real way and Iowa State is one of the better rushing defenses in the country. If Iowa State completely shuts down any rushing opportunity for the Panthers, we foresee this getting ugly fast - but in ISU’s favor.

Special Teams

Who and how much do we have to pay to get a damn touchback around here? Because just take our money. Enter Andrew Mevis the transfer from Fordham. During his last season played in 2019 (Fordham canceled the 2020 season due to COVID-19) Mevis kicked off 63 times and 50 of those were touchbacks. He and Connor Assalley will handle the kicking duties for Iowa State, but in what fashion? We’ll have our answer Saturday afternoon.

For punting, Corey Dunn is back from injury this season and Cameron Shook is returning with him. One of the two will look to replace Joe Rivera who opted not to take the extra year of eligibility. Dunn struggled during the early part of the 2019 season.

The Verdict- Even

Until Iowa State can kick the ball out of the end zone and the punters can prove they are worthy of the field position battle, Cyclone fans will be on the edge of their seat during special team situations. While we do think the Cyclone special teams will be solid this season, the proof will be on game day.

Winning Scale from 1 to 10

This is the biggest game in the state of Iowa this year and the Panthers will most certainly be ready for it. On a scale zero to 10 million Busch Lights consumed on Saturday, we put this game at a about one million Busch Lights chances that ISU comes out on top against the Panthers. Or something like that...

Final Analysis

We all have those Northern Iowa scaries in our brain from performances past, but we feel deep in our end zones that this one will be different. Laser focus and determination to pick up where they left off in the Fiesta Bowl is a huge driving factor - and Matt Campbell is sick of slow starts.

Our prediction for game play goes something like this: we won’t be shocked to see Northern Iowa strike first as both Tom Manning and Jon Heacock feel out the Panthers pace and strategy. Then we might spin into spiral mode for a hot minute (looking at you, Matt Nelson). But in the end, we will breathe a Cyclone-powered sigh of relief as Iowa State pulls away big in the second quarter. Ultimately? It’s a Cyclone victory perdition for us.

Third Key To Victory - Foot On The Gas All Four Quarters

Final Score

Iowa State 42

Northern Iowa 10