There are 118 teams competing in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision.
This season, as has been the case for most of the last decade, the University of Northern Iowa has been among the elite programs in the nation.
The fourth-ranked Panthers (10-2) look to continue their tradition of excellence in the postseason Saturday at 5:05 p.m. when they take on No. 20 UMaine at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
“Their consistency over the years is almost unmatched in the country when you talk about winning year in and year out,” said UMaine head coach Jack Cosgrove. “They’re always in the tournament, they’re hosting games, and they have a great environment.”
Northern Iowa, coached by Mark Farley, is making its 14th NCAA postseason appearance, this year as the No. 3 national seed. The Panthers, who earned an at-large bid coming out of the new Missouri Valley Football Conference, have won six straight first-round games.
“I think No. 1 it’s the consistency in recruiting,” Farley said. “We rely on our tradition but that doesn’t win games. That allows us to sit in homes and talk about the possibilities.
“That comes from a consistent recruiting philosophy and the consistent players that bring in the type of work ethic and talent that we need to build off of,” he added.
UNI’s success this season has been built around defense. The Panthers have been among the stingiest teams in the country, affording opponents only 16.3 points per game.
They rank 19th in total defense, giving up 302.6 yards per contest, including only 107.5 yards per game via the run.
The Panthers are paced by linebackers Josh Mahoney (106 tackles) and De’Veon Harris (83) and strong safety Darrell Lloyd (80).
“They’re very athletic on both sides of the ball,” Cosgrove said. “They play team defense, run pursuit, tackle hard, tackle well. I like the way they play football.”
UNI has allowed more than 20 points in a game only twice while posting two shutouts. The Panthers also are plus-15 in turnover margin. They have turned the ball over just 14 times while taking away 16 interceptions and 13 fumbles.
On the offensive side, Northern Iowa is big, strong, fast and versatile. The unit operates with an offensive line that averages almost 6-foot-5 and 301 pounds.
That group opens holes for running backs Corey Lewis and Derek Law, who have combined for 1,769 yards and 16 touchdowns. Lewis goes into the game needing 25 yards to become UNI’s career rushing leader. He has rolled up 3,811 yards and 37 TDs.
“Corey means so much to our program,” said Farley. “He’s just so versatile as far as catching the ball out of the backfield, protecting our quarterbacks in coverages. At the same time, we’re looking at his numbers and hopefully we can rush and he’ll get his 25 yards he needs to break the all-time record.”
“He’s as good as we can expect to see in our division,” Cosgrove said of Lewis.
The Panthers add plenty of speed and finesse to their power run game. Quarterback Pat Grace has completed 100 of 166 passes for 1,333 yards and 10 touchdowns in nine games. However, he missed three of the last five games with an injury.
UNI’s top ball-catching threats are Josh Collins (23 receptions, 406 yards, 1 TD), Lewis (19-215-2) and Schuylar Oordt (9-119-3). The Panthers are averaging 158.8 ypg through the air.
“Their quarterback is very efficient, a good runner,” Cosgrove said. “He’s over 60 percent passing. They’re smart with what they do on offense.”
UNI’s top two receivers, Johnny Gray (29-380-2) and Victor Williams (28-362-2), were arrested Nov. 14 on marijuana possession charges and were suspended from the team indefinitely. Neither played in the Panthers’ regular-season finale.
Northern Iowa also features a strong kicking game, which benefits from playing often inside the UNI-Dome. Place-kicker Billy Hallgren has converted 40 of 42 PATs while hitting 14 of 18 field-goal tries.
Punter Brook Black boasts a 40.4-yard overall average with 16 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line and eight of 50 yards or more.
Cosgrove said the Panthers present numerous challenges for the Black Bears.
“They’re well-coached, disciplined,” he said. “They’re going to give us all we can handle. We’re going to have to play a great game.”