FCS Football News
The Sports Network
By John Hooper, FCS Correspondent
DATE & TIME: Saturday, November 29th, 5:05 p.m. (et).
FACTS & STATS: Site: UNI-Dome (16,324) -- Cedar Falls, Iowa. Surface: Artificial Turf. Television: None. Home Record: Maine 4-2; Northern Iowa 6-0. Away Record: Maine 4-2; Northern Iowa 4-2. Series Record: Northern Iowa (1-0). Last Meeting: December 8, 2001 (Northern Iowa, 56-28 at Northern Iowa - 2001 FCS Playoffs. Conference: Maine - Colonial Athletic Association; Northern Iowa - Missouri Valley. Sports Network Ranking: Maine (20); Northern Iowa (4). Playoff Record: Maine (2-4); Northern Iowa (16-13). Nicknames: Delaware Blue Hens; Northern Iowa Panthers. Coaches: Maine - Jack Cosgrove (88-94); Northern Iowa - Mark Farley (73-27).
GAME NOTES: Two hard-nosed, mirror-image teams that put an emphasis on defense and ball control will face off in the playoffs for the second time in seven years. Northern Iowa beat Maine 56-28 when the Black Bears traveled to the UNI Dome for a 2001 quarterfinal encounter, but this one should be a lot closer.
Maine is making its fourth overall appearance in the FCS playoffs, while No. 3 UNI qualified for the 14th time, including its second in a row and third in four years. The Panthers were the No. 1 seed in the 2007 playoffs, but saw their 12-0 season ruined by Delaware, 39-27, win in the quarterfinals.
UNI is the most-successful FCS program without a national title and the key to winning its first this year will be getting the same solid play on both sides of the ball that has yielded eight-straight victories and a share of the Missouri Valley Conference crown. One thing in the Panthers' favor is a six- game winning streak in first round games.
With the loss of one of the school's all-time great signal-callers Eric Sanders, it probably would've been hard to believe that the 2008 edition of the Panthers football team would become just the sixth team in school history to post a 10-win campaign.
The offense has been managed efficiently by quarterbacks Pat Grace (1,333 yards, 10 TDs, five interceptions) and Zach Davis (496 yards, three TDs, one interception, three starts), replacing four-year starter and 2007 Payton Award runner-up Eric Sanders. Grace missed three games with a knee injury, but had a good tune up with 133 yards of total offense last week in a 34-24 road win over Southern Utah. Davis, a redshirt freshman, led the Panthers to three wins in Grace's absence.
One of the leftovers from an offense that ended the 2007 season ranked seventh nationally is running back Corey Lewis (1,122 yards, nine TDs, 12 catches, 215 yards, 11.3 yards per catch, two TDs ). Though he's battled injuries in 2008, Lewis needs just 25 yards to become the school's all-time rushing leader. Derrick Law has added 647 yards and seven TDs to spell Lewis, who was slowed at mid-season by an ankle injury.
UNI had to rebuild an offensive line that lost Chad Rinehart and Brandon Keith to the NFL, but Bob Swift at left guard, and one of the league's best centers, Austin Steichen have stepped up.
The Panther offense isn't flashy (361 yards per game, 51st in FCS), but has more of a blue-collar work ethic that has yielded the nation's 16th-best running game (202 yards per game).
One deficiency the Panthers weren't expecting to have this season was at receiver, but the late-season dismissals of Johnny Gray (preseason All- American) and Victor Williams on drug charges, make things more murky entering the postseason.
Redshirt freshman Josh Collins (23 catches, 17.7 yards per reception, 406 yards, one TD), once a third option at wide receiver, has now become the featured receiver in the UNI offense. Collins is a deep threat, possessing the speed to get behind the opposing secondary.
Another key in UNI's carryover from last season's 12-1 team has been a defense that ranks seventh in FCS in scoring defense (16.2 points per game) and posted back-to-back shutouts (28-0 vs. Indiana State, 42-0 vs. Missouri State) for the first time since 1971.
The Panthers' defense thrives on opportunity, sporting a plus-15 turnover margin (16 interceptions, 13 fumbles). The Panthers are best at stopping the running game (108 yards per game, 20th in FCS). Junior defensive end James Ruffin (54 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, eight sacks) is one of the reasons for the Panthers' success at stopping the run.
Strong safety Darrell Lloyd (80 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, three blocked kicks) has also played a role in the units overall success, and his blocked extra point against Youngstown State is what preserved UNI's shared title and its second-straight postseason seed. Linebacker Jamar Thompson has contributed to the significant interceptions total this season with a team-high tying four picks.
The secondary has been mediocre so far (195 yards per game, 55th in FCS) but has been able to produce big plays in key situations. Ball-hawking cornerback Terrell McMoore (47 tackles, four interceptions) was one of the premier one- on-one cover corners in the MVFC.
Despite its 28-24 loss to New Hampshire in the regular-season finale in what was thought to be a playoff elimination game, Maine's six-straight wins, including a pivotal road win over then-playoff bound UMass proved to be enough to tip the scales in the Black Bears' favor. To avoid losing its first opening round playoff game since 1989, Maine can't afford to get into a track meet with the Panthers.
Running the ball won't be easy for Maine, whose offense is based primarily around its ground attack, against the staunch Panther defense. The running game, which averages 196 yards per game, has been carried by Jarad Turcotte (602 yards, seven TDs) and Jhamal Fluellen (558 yards, three TDs). Michael Brusko (647 yards, seven TDs, one interception) has played in all 12 games this season and has been in the starters' role ever since quarterback Adam Farkes suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the second quarter of the Delaware win in early October. Brusko has gone 6-1 as a starter, and has been the offensive spark the Black Bears needed down the stretch.
Brusko's top targets have been Landis Williams (20 catches, 214.7 yards average, five TDs) and Turcotte (23 receptions, 11.8, one TD), who's the team's leading receiver as well as being the leading ground gainer. Williams is the teams best game-breaker in terms of being able to break the big play in the running game or the passing game.
The calling card in most seasons for Jack Cosgrove-coached clubs has been defense. There's no change in that pattern in 2008, as the Black Bears rank 27th nationally in total defense (315 yards per game) and are energized by the leadership of defensive end Jovan Belcher (93 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks). The CAA defensive player of the year is one of the favorites for the Buchanan Award.
The Maine rush defense (133 yards per game, 47th in FCS), faced with limiting Lewis is also strong at linebacker, paced by senior Sean Wasson (88 tackles, nine tackles for loss, two interceptions), while the nation's 42nd-rated pass defense is headed up by free safety Lamir Whetstone, who leads the team with five interceptions to go with 54 tackles.
While Maine certainly has a defense that can contain Lewis and the Panthers' offense, questions remain as to whether its offense is explosive and versatile enough to put enough points on the board to pull out a win at the UNI Dome.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Northern Iowa 24, Maine 14.
11/27 13:27:15 ET