Call it luck, point to the strength of schedule, say it's because of the history of Panther football -- either way, UNI just squeaked in to the FCS Playoff picture, and that's all that matters.

After a 3-4 spring season followed by a brutal return to play in the fall, the purple and gold will do their best to advance despite an overwhelming amount of injuries, a slow-starting offense, and an Eastern Washington team that has had a plethora of success through the air this year.

The Panthers have faced a lot of incredibly solid squads this season (obviously, the Missouri Valley Football Conference is an absolute blood bath), but this first round playoff matchup will be a different test tomorrow. The Eagles will come ready to play.

Here are your three things to watch:

The Passing Game -- On Both Sides

After the Panthers completely disrupted the air-raid offense put forth by Western Illinois last week, things look a bit more positive heading into this game -- but it won't be easy.

Though the Leathernecks offense was pass-heavy, it didn't carry the tempo that the Eagles play with. For comparison, EWU ran almost 200 more plays than UNI did this season. Coach Farley said it himself this week:

Against this offense, you can't go in there and expect to do some of the things we've done (this year) -- because of how they play the game. We're probably going to take 90 snaps (defensively). We probably took 60 (snaps against Western Illinois). That's a game and a half of a high-powered offense. ... In this game it will be a constant go. ... That's how they run, they're conditioned for that.

That high powered offense averaged 46.6 points per game this season while being led by FCS Offensive Player of the Year candidate and quarterback, Eric Barriere. The red-shirt senior has passed for 4257 yards and 40 touchdowns on his way to winning his second straight Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year award.

The Eagles also have four receivers with over 40 receptions this season. UNI's offense doesn't have one. 

Eastern Washington also has six players with four or more touchdown catches this year. UNI has Sam Schnee with four and Isaiah Weston with 5.

It's not like EWU doesn't run the ball, either. Their leading rusher, Dennis Merritt, has carried the ball 168 times so far this season for 812 yards and 14 touchdowns.

Like Coach Farley said regarding their offensive philosophy:

All gas, no brakes.

This team likes to go, go, go.

The question remains of the Panther offense (more specifically, the passing game) -- can they keep up?

That team the Cats played last week, WIU, did. In a nonconference shootout, the Leathernecks barely fell to the Eagles, 62-56. Connor Sampson, who threw for just 163 yards and finished with three interceptions last week against the Panthers, completed 31 passes for 425 yards and four touchdowns against EWU. The run game for WIU provided a nice balanced attack as well, as a combination of eight runners put together 199 yards and four scores against the Eagle defense.

While UNI's pro-style offense doesn't provide as much trickery as Western Illinois, they bring much more talent.

It may be time to mix things up and throw a few different looks at the Eagles. Put the ball in the air a little bit more. Dare them to try and stop one of the best receivers in the country in Isaiah Weston.

If not, the run game has been vital to the Panther offense this year, and it doesn't hurt to shake things up with an end-around hand off to Deion McShane.

Do what works, and keep doing it until it doesn't.

Key Players Back

Running backs Vance McShane and Tyler Hoosman have had off and on injuries the last few games, tight ends Kyle Fourtenbary and Jayden Scott have missed time due to injuries and COVID, and Bradrick Shaw and Sergio Morancy have missed the last two games due to health protocol.

They're ALL back this week. That's six added weapons at quarterback Theo Day's disposal.

Not only that, we got a glimpse of what freshman Terrance Kamara is capable of last week, scoring his first touchdown and somehow hauling in this reception on a last second pass from Day:

Though both questionable, Devin Rice and Korby Sander may rejoin the Panther defense as well.

 

Though Rice has tallied just five sacks and 6.5 tackles for a loss this year, he's been incredibly important for the UNI defense when it comes to getting after the quarterback. Sacks are awesome, and they sure help, but simply putting pressure on the quarterback and making him go off script are vital, too. Rice is damn good at that.

In regards to Sander -- there's only so many times I can talk about how hard this kid hits, especially from the safety position. Having a guy like that makes it much less desirable to catch a pass over the middle.

Though Sander sat out last week due to an ankle injury that kept him from being as explosive as he'd like to be, I'd be shocked if Sander doesn't give it a go in what could be his final college football game on Saturday.

Oh, one other thing. Kind of unrelated. Jared Brinkman exists.

Playing on the Road

UNI is 7-1 against the Eagles all time. Six of those wins have come in the UNI-Dome, though, and so far this season, the Panthers are 2-4 on the road.

This isn't a regular away game, either. I mean, look at EWU's football field:

While it's difficult to simulate playing against an up-tempo offense like Eastern Washington's, I have no idea how the purple and gold coaching staff will simulate seeing the football while playing on this red turf.

Although it will be a test to adjust the eyes for the UNI defense, EWU's only two losses this season did come at home. The first to a lowly Weber State team, 35-34, and the second to Montana State, who is the 8-seed in this year's FCS Playoffs. They're not unbeatable.

Not only that, two of the Panther's biggest wins this season came on the road: When they took down Sacramento State (who is the 4-seed in the playoffs), 27-16, and they defeated the then-No. 6 South Dakota State Jackrabbits in Brookings.

 

Final Thoughts

EWU won't make it easy. This is a good football program. Barriere is arguably (definitely) the best quarterback the Panthers have faced all season.

While UNI set before them the goal of winning a national championship this season, the road ahead is not painted with gold.

It can be painted purple, though.

The Cats can do this. Crazier things have already happened this season.

Behind their added health, a defense that remains elite, and the confidence of playing in the toughest conference in all of the FCS, the Panthers have every right to believe they'll be playing into December of 2021.

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