UNI Looks for First Ranked Win of 2022 at Southern Illinois
For the remainder of the season, UNI football will have its back up against the wall -- if they keep winning.
After starting 0-3, the Panthers have gone 4-1 over their last five, and are back in the playoff hunt conversation. In order to get back into the thick of it, though. They'll need to win their next three games.
The first of those three matchups comes this weekend against Missouri Valley Football Conference (MVFC) rival and 20th-ranked Southern Illinois.
Here are three things to watch this weekend in Carbondale, where SIU is 13-5 against Northern Iowa.
Mixing Up the Defensive Front
In UNI's last two games, we've seen more of a three-man front from the defensive line. Coach Mark Farley has pointed to a couple of things for the decision to shake it up from the typical four-man front the Panthers have shown over the years.
The first is the competition the purple and gold have faced over their previous two contests -- both Utah Tech and Missouri State had shown that they like to put the ball in the air. The three-man front allows for more defensive backs and linebackers to be put on the field in coverage. With this move, Safety Korby Sander has moved into more of a linebacker position, and Coach Farley has mixed up his blitz packages, sending Sander and defensive back Jevon Brekke in on the quarterback periodically.
Additionally, starting pass-rusher for the Panthers, Caden Houghtelling, missed the last two games with back tightness. This limits the amount of linemen UNI can put on the line, and has pushed Cannon Butler to defensive end, though he has played mostly nose tackle this season. We also saw more of redshirt senior transfer, Cordarrius Bailey, at D-End, given his comfortability in three-four defense coming from Iowa State.
Though Houghtelling's health is up in the air heading into this weekend's matchup with the Salukis, it's apparent Southern Illinois likes to run the ball, and we will likely see more of the four-man fronts.
The Salukis' offense is unique, to say the least.
Just ask Javon Williams, who, for some reason, is listed as a running back on the Southern Illinois roster. The Centralia, Illinois native is the team's second-leading rusher with 280 yards and eight touchdowns on 81 carries, is 8-13 for 133 yards through the air, and has caught 22 passes for 222 yards.
If the 'athlete' position existed outside of solely recruiting, Williams would fall into that category.
Often taking snaps in the wildcat, the junior gets behind a wall of SIU offensive linemen and pushes ahead for any yards he can get, often leading to touchdowns in the red zone.
When Williams isn't taking snaps, Southern Illinois employs one of the best quarterbacks in the MVFC in Nic Baker. The 5'9, 204-pound QB ranks ninth in the country in completion percentage (69.4%), 21st in completions per game (21.5), and 23rd in passing yards (1,772). He's also passed for 13 touchdowns this season, which ranks second in the MVFC to UNI's Theo Day.
Five of those 13 touchdown passes have landed in the hands of senior wideout Avante Cox.
Take Advantage of Saluki Mistakes
Southern Illinois' offense is efficient. They don't turn the ball over. In fact, nationally, they rank just ninth in turnovers lost this season and have only given the ball up five times over their eight games played. Two of those turnovers came last week in their 27-24 loss to South Dakota.
They also like to hold onto the ball. So much so that the Salukis rank seventh in the FCS in time of possession (34:43 per game).
That's why taking the ball away from Baker and Williams and capitalizing off turnovers is so important. If the Panther defense can get the football out of the hands of their playmakers and into the hands of one of the best offenses UNI has ever seen, that will greatly aid in their effort on Saturday.
The numbers aren't completely in favor of the Salukis, either. SIU ranks 99th in the country in total penalties (55). They're also 103rd in the FCS in tackles for loss allowed (7.68 per game).
Along with UNI's defensive improvements in recent weeks, the Panthers have been able to take advantage of opponents' offensive penalties and blocking miscues and forced them to punt. That trend will need to continue this weekend if the purple and gold want to stay in the playoff race.
Here's a preview of the game on Cornstalks and Sports Talk with Saluki football beat writer for the Southern Illinoisan, Bucky Dent: