The Sports Network
By John Hooper, FCS Correspondent
DATE & TIME: Saturday, December 6th, 7:05 p.m. (et).
FACTS & STATS: Site: UNI-Dome (16,324) -- Cedar Falls, Iowa. Surface: Artificial Turf. Television: ESPN Game Plan, Comcast (New England). Home Record: New Hampshire 4-1; Northern Iowa 7-0. Away Record: New Hampshire 6-1; Northern Iowa 4-2. Series Record: Northern Iowa (2-0). Last Meeting: November 24, 2007 (Northern Iowa, 38-35 at Northern Iowa - 2007 FCS Playoffs. Series Streak: Northern Iowa has won both meetings. Conference: New Hampshire - Colonial Athletic Association; Northern Iowa - Missouri Valley. Sports Network Ranking: New Hampshire (10); Northern Iowa (4). Playoff Record: New Hampshire (4-6); Northern Iowa (17-13). Nicknames: New Hampshire Wildcats; Northern Iowa Panthers. Coaches: New Hampshire - Sean McDonnell (70-48); Northern Iowa - Mark Farley (74-27).
GAME NOTES: Northern Iowa saw its memorable 2007 season come to a screeching halt in the FCS quarterfinals, dropping its only decision of the campaign to CAA member and eventual finalist Delaware (39-27) at the UNI Dome.
The No. 3 seeded Panthers will meet their fourth-straight CAA opponent in the postseason when they face New Hampshire for the second-straight season and the third time in four seasons. UNI won the previous meetings by a combined six points, 38-35 in 2007 and 24-21 in 2005.
In the thrilling win over the Wildcats last season, the matchup featured two of the best signal-callers to ever play at the FCS level, in UNI's Eric Sanders and UNH's Ricky Santos. Santos drove New Hampshire to a 35-31 lead against the undefeated and top-seeded Panthers with 1:11 left, with Chad Kackert scoring on 15-yard run, but Sanders answered and hit Montari Leonard with the 24-yard game-winning touchdown pass with seven seconds remaining.
Unfortunately for both teams, the 2007 season was the swan song for these two decorated passers. But in 2008, a new generation of offensive firepower has guided each institution.
Leading that new quarterbacking era at Northern Iowa have been junior Pat Grace (1,562 yards, 12 TDs, six interceptions) and freshman Zach Davis.
Grace, who has battled a knee injury this season, returned to form in UNI's 40-15 stomping of CAA North Division member Maine. In the 25-point victory over the Black Bears, Grace connected on 15-of-24 passes for 229 yards, tossing two TDs and an interception.
Davis was named the first-team quarterback on the Missouri Valley Conference all-newcomer's squad this week. He passed for 496 yards and three TDs and rushed for 51 yards in subbing for Grace several times.
Despite being without top receivers Johnny Gray and Victor Williams (both were dismissed for arrests on drug charges), Grace had little trouble finding true freshman speedster Jared Herring (nine receptions, 24.1 yards per catch, three TDs), who caught three passes for 102 yards and two TDs. Josh Collins (23 receptions, 17.7 yards per catch, one TD) has been the Panthers' top receiver since the departure of Gray and Williams.
UNI, which averages 164 yards per game through the air, relies heavily on a ground game that churns out an average of 199 yards per game. Corey Lewis (1,197 yards, 10 TDs) spearheads the rushing attack, while being complemented by Derrick Law (711 yards, nine TDs). In last season's matchup with UNH, Lewis rushed for 220 yards and three TDs, leading a UNI offense that totaled 256 of its 570 total yards on the ground. Lewis, who has rushed for 3,886 yards in his career, became the school's all-time leading rusher with his 75-yard, one TD effort in last week's win.
The Panther defense has been nothing less than spectacular in the past three weeks, posting back-to-back shutouts and limiting Maine to just 15 points in the first round. UNI ranks sixth nationally in scoring defense, holding opponents to just 16 points per game.
Northern Iowa sports a plus-18 in turnover margin, paced by a solid linebacking corps that includes three of the team's top four tacklers, sparked by Josh Mahoney (116 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, one interception). Jamar Thompson (83 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, four interceptions) and De'Veon Harris (89 tackles, eight tackles for loss, four sacks, two interceptions) round out the talented trio.
Defensive end James Ruffin (57 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, eight sacks) was named the MVFC defensive player of the year and unsung Mark Huygens is one of the top defensive tackles in the FCS ranks.
Darrel Lloyd (83 tackles, two interceptions) and Terrell McMoore (52 tackles, four interceptions) were two of the MVFC's top cover-corners in 2008, and they lead a pass defense that yields an average of 194 yards per game.
New Hampshire quarterback R.J. Toman (2,867 yards, 27 TDs, 11 interceptions) guides a Wildcats' passing game that averages 243 yards per game through the air. He has two of the top remaining pass-catchers of the eight teams remaining in the playoff field. Wide receiver Mike Boyle (63 receptions, 1,057 yards, 16.8 yards per catch, 10 TDs) and tight end Scott Sicko (44 catches, 574 yards, 13.0 yards per catch, seven TDs) represent the big-play targets for Toman. Robert Simpson (722 yards, six TDs) and Kackert (1,177 all-purpose yards, six TDs) power a running game that averages 166 yards on the ground.
Defensively, the Wildcats are nearly as opportunistic as the Panthers, sporting a plus-17 turnover margin this season. The defense which surrenders just 135 yards per outing on the ground is paced by All-CAA linebacker Matt Parent (93 tackles, two interceptions, one interception return for a TD) and defensive back John Clements (81 tackles, two interceptions). Cornerback Dino Vasso is the defensive leader in both tackles (113) and interceptions (five).
In games against common opponents, UNI has a blowout win against a team (Maine) that New Hampshire struggled to beat, 28-24, in the regular-season finale, while UNH has a road victory over a foe (Southern Illinois) that UNI lost to away from home early in the season on a last-second field goal, 27-24.
An R.J. Toman-Pat Grace matchup might lack the glamour that its predecessors garnered in the last two postseason meetings, however, both offenses can still put up points. This game is more about defense in 2008, and UNI's strength on that side of the ball should prove to be the ultimate difference in the third playoff encounter between the two institutions.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Northern Iowa 28, New Hampshire 17.
12/04 18:12:28 ET