On Saturday at 4 PM in Cedar Falls, the UNI Panthers will return to their Missouri Valley Football Conference schedule, taking on another team that has had a disappointing start to their season -- Missouri State.

The Bears started the season ranked in the top five of the FCS Stats Top 25 poll along with UNI, who started the season ranked 21st.

After starting 2-0 with wins over Central Arkansas and Will McElvain as well as ranked UT-Martin, Mo. St. looked like they were trending in the right direction. The following week they took a 27-10 lead into the fourth quarter against the No. 10 FBS team Arkansas, before being outscored 21-3 in the fourth quarter and losing 38-27.

Since that game, the Bears have lost three in a row in conference play, dropping losses to now No. 1 South Dakota State, now No. 20 North Dakota, and now No. 14 Southern Illinois before their bye-week.

Next up, it's at Northern Iowa, where the Panthers are 19-3 all-time against the Bears. Here are three things to watch between these two teams this weekend:

Live in the Backfield, Get to Jason Shelley

Despite returning four out of five starters on the offensive line this season, Missouri State has had one of the worst showings in the country at that position in 2022. So far, the Bears have allowed the second-most sacks in the nation, allowing 29 over six games.

Their rushing attack is also lacking, ranking 106th out of the 123 FCS teams with just 94 yards per game. That's with Kansas State transfer Jacardia Wright in the backfield.

Despite the lack of protection and the poor running game, Mo. State's stud quarterback Jason Shelley is second in the MVFC (to UNI's Theo Day) in passing yards (1,571) and passing touchdowns (12) this season.

Through seven games, the Panther defense has only totaled 12 sacks. They also rank 108th out of 123 teams in third down conversion defense.

The missing sacks could be blamed on scheme, but with talent like Caden Houghtelling, Devin Rice, Khristian Boyd, and Cannon Butler on the defensive line, those numbers should be higher than they are. The UNI defense is tied for 76th nationally and is eighth in the MVFC.

If the Panthers want a shot at stopping Missouri State's high-octane offense and preventing loads of long third-down conversions, they've got to get to Shelley and Wright early and often.

Take Advantage of The Bears' Defense

Missouri State is ranked toward the bottom nationally in some pretty significant statistical categories. The Bears find themselves 111th in defensive passing efficiency, 113th in total defense, and 114th in passing yards allowed.

In other words, air it out, Theo.

Since the change in the offense was brought in by Bodie Reeder, UNI's starting quarterback is first in the MVFC in and top ten nationally in passing efficiency (ninth), passing yards (sixth), passing yards per completion (seventh), and yards per pass attempt (sixth). He also ranks first in the league in passing touchdowns, passing yards, and points responsible for.

The Michigan State transfer is on a tear, having posted 1,850 passing yards and 13 passing touchdowns this season. Last week against Utah Tech, Day passed for 308 yards and threw for three touchdown passes on just 13 completions.

Though the Bears get starting safety Kyriq McDonald back this weekend in the UNI-Dome, the writing is on the wall for the MSU passing defense.

Put Them Away Early / Don't Lose Hope if They Start Hot

Over their aforementioned four-straight losses, the Bears had at least a ten-point lead during a portion of the game in three of them, including the Arkansas loss.

With just eight minutes off the clock in the first quarter against Southern Illinois on October 8, Mo. St. had already taken a 14-0 advantage. They eventually lost 38-21.

With 2:36 remaining in the second quarter at North Dakota on October 1, the Bears were up 21-10. The Fighting Hawks scored ten points over the remaining time in the first half and ultimately trounced the Bears 48-31.

In their loss to South Dakota State on September 24, the game was tied at 14 going into the fourth quarter. The Bears squandered that lead and lost at home, 28-14.

Missouri State might start hot. If the Panthers can prevent that by getting to Shelley in the backfield, then great. If they can match it with the way Day has been playing, then great. But if the Bears start hot, it won't be the end-all-be-all for Saturday's contest in Cedar Falls.

Here's a preview of the game with me and sports writer from the Springfield News-Leader, Wyatt Wheeler:

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