E. Illinois-N. Iowa Preview
Northern Iowa and Eastern Illinois made late pushes and ended up in Saturday's first-round FCS playoff matchup between former Gateway Conference rivals in Cedar Falls.
Fifteenth-ranked Northern Iowa (7-4) is making its 18th playoff appearance - fifth all-time - after getting off to a rocky start in Missouri Valley Conference play amidst a difficult schedule. The Panthers dropped their first three league games by a total of 16 points to Illinois State, North Dakota State and Western Illinois, all fellow playoff qualifiers.
They've since won five in a row by a 179-55 margin.
"I feel our team is at a stage right now where we're still getting better. Just little things," said coach Mark Farley, who is 46-8 in November with the Panthers, winning 11 in a row. "Last week we threw for 70 percent, and i think that's the first time this year ... We'll do the same thing this week - what can we do a little better this week that we can improve?"
UNI has been battle-tested in the rough-and-tumble MVFC, which sent five teams to the playoffs for a second straight season. A dynamic ground game has keyed the late surge with the team running for 270.8 yards per game over the last five contests, which ranks 10th nationally in that span.
The Panthers averaged 178.0 in their first six games.
"We weren't very good at the beginning of the season - that was easy to see. Out of sync, out of rhythm and no technique," Farley said. "Now, we're fundamentally sound. The players understand what we expect of them. And their play is much better."
Aaron Bailey has keyed the attack, rushing for a quarterback school-record 17 TDs in being named the conference's newcomer of the year after transferring from Illinois. The school's third QB in six years to win the honor, Bailey ran for 1,029 yards and threw for 1,362.
He totaled five TDs in a 49-28 home win over Southern Illinois last Saturday to cap the regular season.
Eastern Illinois (7-4) was among the last four teams to secure a playoff appearance, its 16th. Similar to UNI, the No. 24 Panthers have won seven of eight since an 0-3 start, only losing to top-ranked Jacksonville State.
"We started off pretty rough. We were able to get it back together," coach Kim Dameron said. "Very proud of our young men for hanging in there and being able to play their best football at the end of the season."
Both teams boast the defensive player of the year from their respective conferences. Eastern Illinois senior lineman Dino Fanti shared the award in the Ohio Valley with Eastern Kentucky's Noah Spence, while UNI's Deiondre' Hall became the first defensive back in three years to capture that honor in the MVFC.
Fanti set a single-season school record with 21 tackles for loss, including 7 1/2 sacks, and he ranks second nationally with five forced fumbles.
Hall paced the MVFC with six interceptions and returned two for TDs.
Offensively, it's been the Devin Church show for Eastern Illinois. A former teammate of Bailey's at Illinois, Church has scored 10 total TDs and caught a team-high 26 passes in addition to his 708 rushing yards.
UNI holds a 15-6-1 edge in a series that has featured only two meetings - both in the postseason - since Eastern Illinois left the Gateway following the 1995 season. Northern Iowa won both at home, 21-14 in 1996 and 49-43 in 2001 - the latter being Farley's first season against a Tony Romo-led EIU squad.
UNI is 15-6 at home in the playoffs.
"It's a loud place ... I expect a very raucous crowd," Dameron said. "I think it is a definite home-field advantage for them - they're used to playing in that environment ... It's something that we're going to have to deal with."
Missouri Valley teams are 14-2 all-time in the playoffs against OVC opponents.
Saturday's winner will visit sixth-seeded Portland State on Dec. 5.