(STATS) - All eyes are on Northern Iowa quarterback Aaron Bailey this week as the third-ranked Panthers chase their 10th consecutive win in home openers and first victory in six all-time meetings with No. 14 Montana on Saturday at the UNI-Dome.
The senior quarterback, one of the most prolific dual threats in the FCS, is coming off a big performance in a 25-20 road victory over Iowa State. He completed 15 of 27 passes for 135 yards and a touchdown while also rushing for 114 yards and a score. Running back Tyvis Smith, a 1,000-yard rusher a year ago, added 68 yards on 17 carries and J'Veyon Browning provided a lift with 43 yards and a TD on 11 rushes.
Bailey and the UNI ground game is certainly a concern for Montana, which didn't play as poorly defensively as the score would indicate in last Saturday's 41-31 home win over Saint Francis. The Grizzlies stopped the Red Flash on 11 of 13 third downs and one of Saint Francis' touchdowns came on a 79-yard kick return. Senior defensive end Caleb Kidder leads the unit after he was named to the STATS FCS Defensive Player of the Year watch list.
"(Bailey) can do a lot of things. He can run, he's got a very strong arm, he can run the option, he can scramble, he can spread out. He can do all these things, so you've got to try to contain him," Montana coach Bob Stitt said during his weekly radio show on the Grizzlies Radio Network.
Although he learned his Panthers were good enough to compete with a FBS opponent from a Power 5 conference in the opener, Northern Iowa coach Mark Farley knows that showing doesn't matter much unless his squad comes ready for this showdown between nationally ranked opponents.
It all starts with Bailey, who has thrown for 1,129 yards with nine touchdowns and only one interception while leading the Panthers to eight wins in their past nine games. The 6-foot-2 playmaker also has rushed for 978 yards and 16 scores over that span.
"We always want to be multiple and you don't want to get boxed into doing only one thing because then it becomes predictable," Farley said. "With Aaron, it's key for us to build a game plan where he can be effective in the throwing game as well as the running game. If we can keep that balance, then we'll have the chance to make some plays."
Northern Iowa also shined defensively in its impressive opening win, holding Iowa State to 51 rushing yards on 25 carries, picking off Cyclones quarterback Joel Lanning twice and sacking him three times. Defensive end Karter Schult had two of those sacks, while linebacker Jared Farley, the coach's son, was named the MVFC defensive player of the week after finishing with a team-high eight tackles and an interception with less than 1:30 left that sealed the win.
"They're aggressive, and they're good up front," Stitt added. "They're a typical Missouri Valley team. They don't make mistakes and they don't give up big plays."
The Panthers look to replicate that effort Saturday, though it won't be easy against Montana's Brady Gustafson. The senior quarterback completed 28 of 43 passes for 353 yards with three touchdowns in the Grizzlies' opener. Over his last eight games, Gustafson has averaged an eye-opening 292.1 passing yards.
Jerry Louie-McGee, Keenan Curran, Josh Horner and Justin Calhoun are playing key roles in the air attack and they teamed for 18 catches, 270 yards and two scores Saturday.
"They're a great football team. They're your typical Montana. They've got a great plan and their players play hard," said Farley, who became Northern Iowa's all-time wins leader with 130 last weekend. "They've got a great foundation for their program so it's a challenging opponent."
This is the first meeting since Montana's 48-10 win in the 2011 FCS quarterfinals. The Grizzlies, who later vacated that victory, haven't played in Cedar Falls since 1987.
TOUGH ROAD TRIPS=
After four FCS teams pulled out wins over FBS schools last weekend, No. 10 Illinois State and No. 20 Youngstown State hope to add their names to that list with upsets on Saturday.
The Penguins (1-0) visit West Virginia, which is coming off a 26-11 victory over Missouri. The Redbirds hope to build on their season-opening rout of Valparaiso when they travel to Evanston to face a Northwestern team that won't be in a welcoming mood after last week's 22-21 home loss to Western Michigan.
"In order to win the Missouri Valley Championship or to be a contender, you have to be able to win on the road and this will be a good test for that," Illinois State coach Brock Spack said. "Obviously, Northwestern is a great program and I've known coach (Pat Fitzgerald) for a long time. They're coming off a heartbreaking loss - a controversial loss - one they easily could have won. I'm sure they're not happy with that, but we have to control our own performance."
HOME SWEET HOME=
It should be a festive atmosphere Saturday night when No. 9 South Dakota State takes on Drake (0-1) in its inaugural game at shiny new Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium. The $65 million stadium holds 19,340 and includes 27 suites, 19 community suites and eight executive suites.
On the field, the Jackrabbits hope to be celebrating their first win after hanging tough with TCU, the 15th-ranked FBS team, in a 59-41 road defeat.
"We're really blessed. It's a phenomenal facility," SDSU coach John Stiegelmeier said. "We've played in some really nice stadiums, but I think this is going to shock some people in South Dakota with what we were able to do."