Playoff preview: Lehigh at Northern Iowa
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
FCS FIRST ROUND: (19) LEHIGH AT (16) NORTHERN IOWA
Kickoff: 1 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 27
Facts and Figures - Site: UNI-Dome (16,300) in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Records: Lehigh, 9-2; Northern Iowa, 7-4. Television: None. Series record: First meeting. Last meeting: None. Conferences: Lehigh, Patriot League; Northern Iowa, Missouri Valley Football Conference. Coaches: Lehigh, Andy Coen (29-26 in fifth season at Lehigh); Northern Iowa, Mark Farley (89-36 in 10th season at Northern Iowa). The Sports Network/Fathead.com FCS ranking: Lehigh, 19; Northern Iowa, 16.
What to know: Northern Iowa had won five straight games before last week's, 30-14 loss to Western Illinois (also a playoff team). To qualify that loss, it must be pointed out that UNI had already secured a playoff berth and the MVFC title.
While UNI is relatively young this year, head coach Mark Farley lends his team a playoff-hardened pedigree. In 10 years, Farley has led the Panthers to the FCS quarterfinals twice (2003, 2007), the semifinals twice (2001, 2008) and the FCS championship game in 2005 (a loss to Appalachian State). The Panthers have won at least one playoff game in each of their last seven postseason appearances.
Daunting news to Lehigh indeed, but the Mountain Hawks, who won the Patriot League title outright, aren't without credentials of their own. They are making their sixth FCS postseason appearance (first since 2004), where they hold a 3-5 all-time record. They enter the playoffs riding a seven-game winning streak and while a home game would have been preferred, a trip to Iowa will not be unfamiliar. The Mountain Hawks opened the 2010 campaign with a 28-14 victory over Drake in Des Moines, Iowa.
To be fair, though, while UNI and Drake may share the Hawkeye State, they share little when it comes to gridiron dominance. UNI quarterback Tirrell Rennie's running ability is of upper echelon ilk. He ranks No. 3 (behind two running backs) in the MVFC in rushing yards per game (109.55) and while his legs are the primary threat, he also can sling the ball, ranking No. 3 in the MVFC in passing efficiency ((143.8 rating).
Rennie was injured in the second quarter of UNI's loss to Western Illinois last week. He took a hard hit on a diving scramble and was replaced by Zach Davis. Farley is being tight-lipped about the injury but given the gravity of the game, it is likely Rennie will play. But will he be 100 percent?
A hampered Rennie may have a tough time navigating the Patriot League's best defense. The Mountain Hawks led the conference is scoring defense (18.1 points per game) and, perhaps more importantly, were No. 1 against the run (124.5 points per game).
Numbers aside, the one glaring difference between these teams is strength of schedule. UNI fought its way through a challenging MVFC race, while Lehigh coasted through a weaker Patriot League slate. The Mountain Hawks' two losses came at the hands of CAA teams (Villanova and New Hampshire). They lost those two games by a combined score of 66-10. While the MVFC may not be the CAA, it is definitely a significant step up from Patriot League competition.
The winner will meet No. 3 seed Delaware of the CAA on Dec. 4.
Prediction: Northern Iowa, 35-17
11/23 17:06:41 ET