Eastern Washington-Northern Iowa Preview
The Big Sky won the first round against the Missouri Valley Conference, as the four-time defending FCS champion went down in a thriller in the college football opener.
In the second major showdown between these premier conferences, seventh-ranked Eastern Washington travels to No. 14 Northern Iowa on Saturday in a matchup between two powerhouses trying to avoid 0-2 starts.
The college football season got underway with what may go down as the game of the year as Montana scored from the 1-yard line on 4th-and-goal with 2 seconds left to stun North Dakota State and give the Big Sky an early edge over the MVC.
The MVC was the ultimate winner last year with the Bison defeating conference brethren Illinois State for the FCS title. Eastern Washington was knocked out in the quarterfinals and UNI, which defeated both NDSU and Illinois State last season, was ousted in the second round.
This season, the Eagles are the top-ranked team in the Big Sky. No conference has more teams in the STATS Top 25 than either the Big Sky or MVC, who have six apiece to make up nearly half the schools in the ranking.
Eastern Washington hasn't enjoyed much luck against Valley schools, going 4-9 with losses in all five prior meetings with the Panthers - the last coming in the 2005 FCS playoffs. All of the previous games in this series were played at the UNI-Dome, where the Panthers will open their 40th season Saturday.
UNI has won eight of nine in the dome and 39 of its last 45 against non-conference foes.
"We know that playing at their home stadium and their home environment will be difficult," Eastern Washington coach Beau Baldwin said. "You really have to pack your lunch pail and know that they truly take their game to another level when they are in that dome."
The Eagles probably aren't too intimidated, however, after playing the FBS' No. 7 Oregon tough last Saturday. Eastern Washington piled up 549 yards, with 438 coming through the air, but had no answers for slowing down former Eagles quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. and the Ducks as they rolled up 731 yards to hand Eastern Washington a 61-42 loss.
Oregon couldn't stop Cooper Kupp, though, as the two-time FCS All-American torched the Ducks for career highs of 15 catches for 246 - both Autzen Stadium records - and three touchdowns. Kupp has 40 receiving TDs, one shy of UNI's Dedric Ward (1993-96) for 11th on the FCS all-time list.
"I'd be shocked if you could show me a better receiver at any level in the country," Baldwin said. "Usually I don't talk like that, but that's how I feel right now and think that we have. We are very fortunate to have him as a leader and player on this football team."
Kupp was running routes for two quarterbacks after Jordan West left the game in the third quarter due to cramping and was replaced by Reilly Hennessey. West finished 23 of 34 for 293 with three touchdowns and an interception, while Hennessey was 14 of 21 for 145 yards with two scores and a pick.
West is expected to reprise his starting role.
UNI coach Mark Farley is giving another start to Aaron Bailey after using three quarterbacks in a 31-7 season-opening loss to Iowa State last Saturday.
Bailey, a transfer from Illinois, went 11 of 19 for 114 yards with a touchdown and interception and ran 22 times for 85 yards. Senior Sawyer Kollmorgen completed five passes for 24 yards and freshman Eli Dunne had four for 38 yards. Farley said he will make personnel changes as things progress.
"Offensively, they can play a couple of different quarterbacks, and one has a lot of athletic ability running the ball well and one seems to throw the ball better," Baldwin said. "It will be interesting to see what they will do, but it will be a challenge defensively for us."
UNI opened the scoring last week with a 19-yard touchdown pass from Bailey to Savon Huggins and only trailed 10-7 at halftime while holding a 196-149 advantage in total yards. The Panthers, however, went 0 for 8 on third-down conversions while managing only six first downs and 106 yards after the half.
''I think we found out a lot about our football team,'' Farley said. ''If we use that, we'll be a better team in the weeks to come, but we really have to do some soul-searching.''
One area of concern for UNI is a defense that's going up against an Eastern Washington team that averaged an FCS-best 44.1 points last season and didn't seem to miss a beat with its two new quarterbacks running the offense.
The Panthers let Sam B. Richardson pick them apart, completing 21 of 29 passes for 233 yards, but did sack him four times one season after leading the FCS with 51 sacks.
"They are very stout in how they play defense," Baldwin said. "Traditionally they are incredibly good and tough up front, and their corners and safeties are really good football players."
Eastern Washington's defense will be without roverback John Kreifels after Baldwin announced he would be suspended following his ejection for targeting against Oregon.