CARBONDALE, Ill. — Southern Illinois is a team trending upwards in the Missouri Valley Football conference.
At least that is what Northern Iowa coach Mark Farley sees on film and by following the Salukis progress under second-year head coach Nick Hill.
On the flip side, Farley hopes his Panthers have made enough progress since losing 24-21 to Southern Utah on Sept. 16 that they can find a way to open MVFC play with a victory Saturday at Saluki Stadium at 6 p.m.
“It’s a big challenge for this team,” Farley said of the Salukis. “I know that. But coming off an open date it should give us some type of energy going into it.”
UNI (1-2) has won three straight against Southern Illinois, including the last time it played in Carbondale in 2014. However, the Panthers have not won back-to-back games in Carbondale since it won three straight in 1992, 1994 and 1996.
SIU (2-1, 0-0) is coming off its first loss at Memphis, 44-31, where the Salukis led at halftime and were within a touchdown with less than five minutes left in the game.
“They took Memphis to task all day long which is concerning because Memphis beat UCLA,” Farley said. “It shows the strength of their team. It’s a good football team that is building and growing and they grew a lot last week in that Memphis football game.”
CEDAR FALLS — Mark Farley didn’t have to tell his team what needs to happen for the Northern Iowa football team to attain its 2017 goals.
SIU’s Hill had the same sentiment on his team’s performance against Memphis.
“I want to see consistent improvement each and every week and I think that game is going to allow us to do that ... things that got exposed, things that we got to continue to grow in,” Hill said. “This is a big week. How do we respond? We played well last week in a loss.
“It is hard to say you played good and got beat. We needed to find a way to win those because we are going to be in games like that in our league where it is the fourth quarter and you got to make a play, got to make a stop ... and we were right there to do that against Memphis and we did not get it done.
Offensively, SIU is lead by Ames native Sam Straub, who has directed the Salukis to more than 400 yards of offense per game. In three games, Straub has been sacked just once, which ranks first in the MVFC and second nationally.
Farley calls running back Daquan Isom elusive, and the Panthers will need to take special care in kick coverage against D.J. Davis who ranked fourth in the nation last year in kick return average.
“The guy is getting it out on time and that is a big part of it,” senior linebacker Jared Farley said of Straub. “The O-Line is doing a good job of protecting him, too, and he does a good job of checking it down to the running back when he needs to so their quarterback is doing a real nice job for them.
“We just have to play our game and do our best to slow them down.”
On the other side of the ball, the Salukis’ defense is giving up just 21.3 points per game, 88.7 rush yards per game and just 347.3 yards per game, all numbers that are significantly down from 2016.
“They are very sound and fly to the ball well,” UNI quarterback Eli Dunne said. “They have done a good job of playing assignment football and keeping things in front of them, haven’t given up many big plays. Against Memphis, what I saw, is they did a good job of putting pressure on the quarterback.”
But as much as UNI has got to be ready for an improved SIU team, the Panthers need to show growth in all phases of their game as well.
“We have to take care of the football and move it on them,” Dunne said when asked what the Panthers need to do to have success Saturday. “The big thing for us is finishing drives, all the games we’ve had we’ve been able to move the football, I’d say, but we got to finish drives.”
Some of that growth could come in the form of healthy players. Leading up to the game at SUU, Farley did not have three main running backs and tight ends Briley Moore and Elias Nissen available for practice and he said that was a factor in the Panthers’ uneven play.
After Wednesday’s practice, Mark Farley said the only player that remains questionable for Saturday’s game is left tackle Cal Twait, who will be a game-time decision.
A major focus for UNI this week and last week during the Panthers’ bye, was placed on the run game that was held to a minus-18 at Southern Utah.
“We are doing a lot of things well and that is why I can’t put a finger on it,” Mark Farley said. “We did a lot of good things at the line of scrimmage when you watch the film, but when you do good things at the line of scrimmage it should produce yards ... that is thing we didn’t do.”