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UNI Panthers have high expectations
UNI returns 17 starters from last season’s MVFC championship team
Youth. Inexperience. Rebuilding. These were common words used to describe the University of Northern Iowa football team at this time a year ago. The Panthers were coming off a disappointing 2009 campaign in which they went 7-4 and missed the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs for the first time in three years. On top of that, the Panthers were left with a void at the quarterback position, which led to a competition between junior Zach Davis and junior college transfer Tirrell Rennie.
The Panthers were projected to finish fourth in the Missouri Valley Football Conference last season, but surpassed expectations by winning the MVFC for the 15th time in 26 years.
“We had great success last year. We overcame a lot of things as a young football team and won the (conference),” said UNI head football coach Mark Farley.
Although the Panthers were able to silence their doubters a year ago, they faltered at home in the first round of the FCS playoffs to Lehigh University, 14-7.
“That loss adds more motivation. It left a bitter taste in our mouth and it makes us want to go out and achieve more,” said UNI quarterback Tirrell Rennie. “Everybody’s expectation – whether it’s at the FBS or FCS level – your goal is to be in that national title game. For us to not get that shot, it left a bitter taste in our mouth and that gives us all the fuel and motivation we need to push more going into this season.”
This year the Panthers are the overwhelming favorites to win the MVFC after receiving 29 out of a possible 36 first place votes in the MVFC pre-season poll. The Panthers return 17 starters (eight on offense, nine on defense) from a year ago, including pre-season All-Americans quarterback Tirrell Rennie, running back and return specialist Carlos Anderson and defensive lineman Ben Boothby.
“Everyone is expecting us to win the (MVFC) again and to go further,” said Farley. “We expect that every year, it doesn’t matter how young or old the team is.”
Farley continued, talking about how valuable having an experienced team can be, “What’s nice about it is we come to practice … and we get started at a different level. They know where to line up. They understand what our adjustments are. We can start teaching the detail to them. A younger team, you got to get them the scheme. The older team has the idea, the scheme. So you get more detail.”
The Panthers will be tested right out of the gate as they travel to face Iowa State University and Stephen F. Austin University before hosting Western Illinois University. All three schools defeated the Panthers a year ago.
“All three beat us last year … we have to come out and be a very good football team very early, and that’s just the first three games. Then we have to go in and figure out what our (conference) is like,” said Farley. “We have to be consistent and sound and not get caught up with who we play, but how we play.”
“Iowa State is a great team. (Paul) Rhoads does a good job of coaching his guys up,” said Rennie. “Iowa State is just another game on our schedule … they’re going to come out and give us a good game, just like we’re going to come out and give them a good game.”
The Panthers travel to Ames on Sept. 3 to face the Cyclones. ISU won last year’s match-up 27-0. Kickoff is set for 6 p.m.
Although the Panthers are the pre-season favorites to win the MVFC, there are still plenty of question marks surrounding the team. Here’s a look at the Northern Iowan’s top five storylines to keep an eye on as the season progresses:
1. “Rennie the Great” – UNI quarterback Tirrell Rennie is one of the most electric players in college football and is a pre-season All-American for good reason after rushing for 1,291 yards and 15 touchdowns a year ago. However, Rennie’s scrambling led to nagging injuries and he finished the season with more interceptions (11) than touchdown passes (eight). So, two keys to keep an eye on this fall are Rennie’s success as a passer and his ability to stay healthy.
2. “Golden toe” – Special teams are often the deciding factor in close games and cannot be overlooked. However, at this time, UNI head football coach Mark Farley has yet to announce who his starting kicker will be for the upcoming season. Sophomore Tyler Sievertsen and freshman Michael Schmadeke will be competing for the starting spot. Farley says Schmadeke has a lot of power while Sievertsen has accuracy and a lot of determination.
3. Two-back system? – UNI has had success in the past when using a two-back running back system, so look for the Panthers to try and find another running back to split carries with Carlos Anderson. The most likely candidates are redshirt-freshman David Johnson and sophomore Zach Cutkomp. Farley says he would ideally like to have two running backs reach 1,000 yards this season, while having a dual-threat quarterback who can run and pass effectively.
4. Battle tested – The Panthers will play one of the tougher schedules in the FCS this season. UNI opens the season with games against Iowa State, Stephen F. Austin and Western Illinois, all of whom beat the Panthers last season. To make matters worse, five of the team’s first eight games are on the road, including trips to Ames, Iowa; Nacogdoches, Tex.; Springfield, Mo.; Brookings, S.D.; and Fargo, N.D. The Panthers hope that their difficult schedule will help prepare them for a deep run in this year’s FCS playoffs.
5. Track athletes in disguise? – Don’t blink or you could miss some of the blazing speed on this year’s UNI football team. The Panthers have a handful of dual-sport athletes, most of whom are members of the UNI track and field team. Running back Carlos Anderson, receiver Jarred Herring and defensive back Wilmot Wellington were all part of the 4x100 meter relay team that captured the 2011 Missouri Valley Conference crown and qualified for the NCAA Championships. Anderson and Herring were also MVC Champions in the 60m indoor and 100m outdoor, respectively.
By BRAD EILERS, The Northern Iowan