The Northern Iowa Panthers are on a two-game skid.

Even when facing a daunting schedule like what the Missouri Valley Football Conference provides, this doesn't happen often -- especially early on in the season.

After traveling to North Dakota State to take on the Bison, the purple and gold fell 34-20. The following week in the UNI-Dome, the Panthers dropped the second game to South Dakota, 34-21. The Coyotes put up 198 yards on the ground, held UNI to 127 rushing yards, and sacked quarterback Theo Day five times.

"When UNI loses a football game at home because they lost the line of scrimmage, that hurts," Coach Mark Farley said after the loss. "That's what (the players) have to understand. ... It should hurt. It should be embarrassing."

After several injuries on the offensive and defensive lines, it's difficult to see how and where the Panthers will bounce back in the trenches against one of the better teams in the conference and the country in the Jackrabbits of South Dakota State.

Can Someone Step Up on the Defensive Line?

Longtime member of the Panther interior is product of Dowling Catholic High School, Brawntae Wells. According to Jim Nelson of the Waterloo/Cedar Falls Courier and Cole Bair of The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Wells had shoulder surgery done and will be out for the remainder of the 2021 season.

Last Saturday was the first game he'd missed so far this year, and UNI allowed the second-most rushing yards they had this season.

SDSU will not make it easy on the Panthers on Saturday.

The Jackrabbits starting running back, Pierre Strong, currently ranks third in the country in rushing yards, having posted 770 yards so far. He's also tied for second in most rushing scores this season with nine. Collectively, the SDSU offense ranks 11th in run offense with 225.5 yards per game.

Per the Waterloo Courier, the Panthers may switch up the defense in ways the Jackrabbits haven't seen it yet this season, including placing 2020 MVFC Defensive Player of the Year, Jared Brinkman, on the defensive end rather than at nose-tackle.

With the way the roster has begun to thin out, it can't hurt.

Any Big Plays From the Offense?

So far this season, the Panthers have scored 12 of their 19 touchdowns on plays of 23 yards or more. Seven of those 12 have been from 36-plus yards out. This team scores on big plays. The slow, methodical drives down to the red zone happen, just not as frequently.

After a big hit to Isaiah Weston on a deep pass over the middle last week, Weston went down, grabbing his left shoulder. Weston has scored four touchdowns so far this season, all four coming from 23 yards or deeper.

Should Weston not play and Logan Wolf continue to be unavailable, the offensive weapons may begin to run thin.

While the running back group of Vance McShane, Dom Williams, Bradrick Shaw, and Tyler Hoosman are all healthy at the moment, the other injuries to the offensive line may hurt UNI's ability to attempt a ground-and-pound, high-possession time offense.

Per the Waterloo / Cedar Falls courier, "Offensive linemen Matthew Vanderslice is likely done for the season with a lower-body injury. Farley said Vanderslice might be able to return late in the season. Two other offensive linemen – Justin Peine and Hayden Amos – are day-to-day and could return to action Saturday."

The offense still has weapons on the outside in Quan Hampton, Deion McShane, Sam Schnee, and Sergio Morancybut missing Weston and members of the offensive line doesn't help.

Turnovers

Despite the issue of depth on the defensive line, the Panthers maintain what is arguably the best secondary in the FCS, and they will remain formidable there.

With Minnesota-transfer and elite safety Benny Sapp III, Honorable Mention All-MVFC corner Omar Brown, Second-Team All-MVFC corner Austin Evans, press-coverage corner in Stefan Black II, and knock-your-teeth-out safety Korby Sander, there aren't going to be many offenses that can avoid all five in the passing game.

In total, the defense has eight interceptions through five games, six of which come from the aforementioned group. Three of those came from Benny Sapp III.

If tipped passes from the linebackers and defensive line come, there's pressure on SDSU quarterback Chris Oladokun, and each unit continues to punch at the ball (especially in the ground game), the Panthers can come away with the football.

The lone game the Jackrabbits lost this season (42-41 in OT to Southern Illinois), they turned the ball over twice. That's their season high.

Final Thoughts

A lot is going to have to go right for UNI to take the victory in Brookings. SDSU is an incredible football team coming off a national runner-up placing in the spring this season. The Cats are capable, but it will be tough.

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