Air Force Football: First Look At The Northern Iowa Panthers

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Air Force Football: First Look At The Northern Iowa Panthers

The Air Force Falcons start 2022 against a very dangerous FCS opponent in Northern Iowa.

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Don’t look past this team.

In Troy Calhoun’s tenure as head coach, the Air Force Falcons have typically coasted against an FCS opponent to open their football season. Lafayette, Colgate, Stony Brook, the list of victims goes on, but this year’s opener is a much different animal.

That’s because the Northern Iowa Panthers have long been one of the nation’s top FCS programs, earning six playoff appearances in the last eight years while competing in what might be the toughest overall FCS conference. In other words, the elevation might not be the only danger present in this game.

Location: Cedar Falls, Iowa

Conference: Missouri Valley

2021 Record: 6-6 (4-4 MVC)

Head Coach: Mark Farley (22nd year at Northern Iowa, 167-92 overall). UNI has been a beacon of stability in the FCS for a good long time now, as Farley is now has the fifth-longest tenure of any head coach at that level. Last year didn’t end the way that he or anyone else hoped, but his Panthers made opponents work for every win they got.

Not content with a first-round exit from the playoffs, Farley went to work this off-season retooling the team with a new quarterbacks coach, Bodie Reeder, who was previously the offensive coordinator at Utah State in 2020. Will it be enough to spur the team’s first run to the semifinals since 2008? We’ll have to wait and see.

Key Players

Jared Penning, G

His brother Trevor was just selected as a first-round NFL Draft pick back in April, but Jared’s first full season as a Panthers starter seemed to hint he could find himself on that same stage in a few years. That’s because Phil Steele tabbed him as a first-team All-American after he accrued an overall PFF grade of 63.7, so while it remains to be seen whether he’s kicked outside to tackle or remains on the interior, expectations are high.

Dom Williams, RB

Ever since he stepped on the field as a freshman at Kansas in 2017, Williams has steadily improved year after year and 2021 was no exception. He led the Panthers with 723 rushing yards last fall, which included a school-record scamper, and scored four touchdowns, and could very well be the focal point of the offense in his final year.

Theo Day, QB

After transferring to UNI from Michigan State, Day made the QB1 job his own. He was named to the Missouri Valley Conference’s all-newcomer team after completing 56.2% of his passes for 2,316 yards and 16 touchdowns. If he can cut down on last year’s 4% interception rate, it’ll only make the Panthers offense that much more potent.

Spencer Cuvelier, LB

Jared Brinkman might have received some serious accolades last year, but Cuvelier has been pretty good himself over the last three seasons. He finished third on the team in tackles back in 2019, then led the MVC in tackles per game during the spring 2021 season and earned a first-team all-conference nod after collecting 75 tackles and 4.5 TFLs in eight games. If he’s back to 100% from the injury that shortened his fall campaign, Cuvelier could be one of the best FCS defenders in the country.

Matthew Cook, K

Is Cook the best FCS kicker in the country? Phil Steele has already tabbed him as a preseason All-American ahead of 2022 after he connected on 19-of-22 field goal attempts last fall, which included successes on 11-of-13 tries from 40 yards and beyond. In three years at UNI, he’s made 80.3% of his field goals and he has the range to be as surefire as any specialist out there.

Overview:

Offense

By a lot of measures, the UNI offense was adequate but not great in 2021. They put up 5.6 yards per play, which ranked in the top 50, but only mustered 24.9 points per game, which was tied for 63rd in the FCS, and had 22 giveaways. There are reasons to think they’ll be better in 2022, but they’ll have to do it while replacing Trevor Penning and Isaiah Weston, who made the all-MVC team as a wide receiver and an all-purpose player.

Much will depend on improvements from Day, but head coach Mark Farley has already noted that he’ll get pushed by others like sophomore Matt Morrissey. The good news for whoever ends up under center is that there is a wealth of talent in the backfield behind them, not just Williams but also redshirt senior Vance McShane (61 carries, 344 yards, five touchdowns).

Weston’s production might be harder to replace, but Quan Hampton (39 catches, 430 yards, two touchdowns) and Deion McShane (35 catches, 408 yards, two touchdowns) are both back to shoulder most of that load.

Defense

It’s difficult to blame the defense for last year’s win-loss record because this unit was one of the best in the FCS ranks. The Panthers finished in a tie for tenth by allowing 4.44 yards per play and also gave up just 18 points per game, which ranked 13th nationally. They made life miserable for everyone from Iowa State and Eastern Washington, but must now deal with inevitable turnover.

MVC defensive player of the year Jared Brinkman is gone, but the good news is that Cuvelier and cornerback Benny Sapp III (52 tackles, four interceptions) were both first-team all-conference defenders, too, and are back for another round. Defensive lineman Caden Houghtelling also had a breakout year (51 tackles, ten TFLs, 5.5 sacks) and should be a major player in run defense.

He won’t have to do it alone, though, since the Panthers’ havoc was by and large a team effort. Junior Devin Rice and senior Bryce Flater also had 6.5 and six TFLs, respectively, so they have a collective nose for finding the football in the backfield.

Early Prediction

Air Force doesn’t typically have too much trouble with its FCS opponents, but Northern Iowa has the toughness to potentially turn this game into a defensive slog if the Falcons aren’t careful. The biggest problem at present for the Panthers is that they may not be able to generate enough explosive plays to keep up if the cadets are able to assert their will.

Air Force 31, Northern Iowa 20

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