Three Things to Watch in UNI’s First-Ever Matchup With Utah Tech
Formerly known as Dixie State, the Utah Tech Trailblazers will make the 1,400-mile trip from St. George to Cedar Falls this weekend to wrap up UNI's non-conference schedule.
Tech enters the game with a 1-4 record and is coming off a bye week.
To say Northern Iowa's start to the season has been disappointing would be quite an understatement. On top of starting 0-3 at the beginning of the year, the Panthers lost a nail-biter of a Homecoming game last weekend to Missouri Valley Football Conference rival, Illinois State. With a record of 2-4 overall, Coach Mark Farley's team may very well have to win out this season if they want to sniff the 2022 FCS playoffs.
Here are three things to watch against Utah Tech in UNI's final non-conference game of the season.
Who Plays QB for the TrailBlazers?
Three different quarterbacks have taken snaps so far this season for Utah Tech. The majority have been by redshirt sophomore Kobe Tracy and redshirt freshman Victor Gabalis. For the most part, Tech's offensive success has come from Tracy's time under center.
Over four games this season, Tracy has completed 51.5 percent of his passes for 1,229 yards and nine touchdowns (granted three of those came against DII Chadron State) to three picks. But, Tracy didn't play two weeks ago due to injury.
Gabalis, a Washington State Transfer, got the start against Abilene Christian and was the only QB to see the field. So far this season, Gabalis has completed just 33.9 percent of his passes for 282 yards, one touchdown, and seven picks. Against the Wildcats, he completed 12 of 34 passes for 109 yards and an interception.
Neither case is necessarily ideal for the Trailblazers, but if Gabalis starts, it could be a field day for the UNI defense.
Sean Ellertson, Utah Tech football beat writer from The Spectrum me on Cornstalks and Sports Talk about the differences in the two QBs, and more:
Though quarterback play will certainly impact the game for Utah Tech, it's important to take note of the Trailblazers' starting running back, Quali Conley. He's run the ball 77 times for 460 yards and five scores this season.
Get the Defense Off the Field
Last week's game for the Panther defense was... rough. In total, Illinois State held a 35:25 to 24:35 advantage in time of possession. They ran 79 to UNI's 58 plays, converted 13 of 20 third-downs, and got a first on both of their fourth-down attempts. There was a barrage of those third-down conversions where the Redbirds needed six-plus yards and would convert.
That can't continue to happen. It's not good for the offense or the defense.
With that said, what's the solution?
It may very well lie with the offense. Seven of UNI's drives last week took less than 3:55 off the clock. While the Panther offense has been efficient and has scored points at a quick rate this season, it might not hurt to slow it down a bit.
UNI's two starting running backs -- Dom Williams and Vance McShane -- have paired to run the ball 121 times this season for 694 yards and five touchdowns. They both average over five yards per carry.
Not to mention, if the workload gets to be too much, Eastern Illinois transfer and bell cow of a running back Harrison Bey-Buie is waiting patiently on the sideline for his turn. It wouldn't be the worst thing in the world to put the ball in his hands more.
Another solution would be to run more man-to-man coverage defensively. Last week, 11 of the 13 third-down conversions came through the air when the Illinois State offense found a hole in the UNI zone defense for a first down. A twelfth came when QB Zack Annexstad ran for ten yards on a third and nine.
These may not have all been stopped by simply switching from zone to man-to-man defense, but it definitely would have helped.
Ethan Petrick of the Waterloo/Cedar Falls Courier and I discussed the defensive struggles on this Wednesday's episode of Cornstalks and Sports Talk:
Get Right Game
The Trailblazers football program just transitioned from DII to DI in 2019, and this is the first matchup ever between Utah Tech and UNI.
So far this season, the lone win Tech has picked up was against Chadron, 56-10. Other than that, they've lost by an average of 21 points. The Trailblazers aren't very good. Though no one on the Northern Iowa staff or roster would say that Saturday's contest to be a 'Get right' game, that's exactly what it is.
After this weekend's matchup, the Panthers will face three monster MVFC teams in Missouri State, Southern Illinois, and South Dakota State before they finally get their bye week. That's all before traveling to Vermillion to take on an always-scrappy South Dakota team.
Now is the time to get the technique corrected, missed assignments taken care of, and confidence backup before heading into the gauntlet that is the remainder of the MVFC schedule.
Though no team should be overlooked at the Division I level, it's much like what Coach Farley said before UNI trounced Western Illinois, 52-17 on September 24 in Macomb:
It’s not (our opponent) this time that presents the challenge. It’s the Panthers.