Southern Utah University football looks to bounce back at No. 11/12 Northern Iowa on Saturday. The T-Birds began their season with a 56-23 loss to UNLV.
Northern Iowa fared much better against their FBS opponent in Week 1. UNI nearly took down FBS No. 21 Iowa State in their opener. The Panthers pushed their Big 12 rival to the brink, but the Cyclones squeaked out the win in triple overtime
This is the T-Birds’ first game against an FCS opponent this season. Las Vegas’ betting odds has SUU as a 24 point underdog this weekend. It’s going to be an uphill battle in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
The battle of Cedar City vs. Cedar Falls pits an emerging offense against a stalwart defense. The T-Birds finished 27th in the country in total offense last season with 435.2 yards per game. UNI finished 17th in scoring defense and allowed just over 21 points per game.
SUU quarterback Chris Helbig will have his work cut out. Helbig completed 14 passes for 138 yards against UNLV, but never found a consistent rhythm.
The junior QB showed his running ability with a touchdown scamper against the Rebels, but he may face an even tougher defensive test against UNI. Iowa State could barely muster 13 points in regulation against them, and they started the season in the FBS top 25.
The offensive line will have to step up against the ferocious pass rush of the Panthers. Helbig was sacked three times against UNLV, and was hurried on nearly every play.
Running back James Felila will need help from the line as well. Felila struggled to find holes against UNLV and never got going. UNI poses a similar defensive threat.
Wideouts Carlos Baker and Lance Lawson will try and find space in the passing game. Lawson caught eight passes in the opener. Baker caught two passes including a 48 yard bomb from Helbig. Zach Nelson caught two TDs in garbage time and should expect more of a role in this contest alongside Isaiah Diego-Williams.
UNI’s weak point is on offense, but SUU’s defense isn’t exactly a stopper either. The T-Birds couldn’t stop anybody in 2018, but have shown signs of improvement under first time Defensive Coordinator Brandon Fisher.
The Panthers really should have beat Iowa State. They forced a fumble near the goal line in the third overtime, but Iowa State’s quarterback somehow managed to wrestle the ball back for ISU.
There’s a reason they’re ranked No. 10 in STATS’ poll and No. 11 in the Coach’s poll. They play in the ever-dominant Missouri Valley Conference and return 16 starters from last season’s FCS playoff squad.
Northern Iowa also specializes in mixing their defensive scheme between a 4-3 and a 3-3-5. Their versatility could confuse Helbig early on. Turning the ball over will kill the T-Birds’ chances.
Redshirt freshman Will McElvain played well in his first career start. McElvain completed 25 passes for 258 yards and a touchdown against Iowa State. He didn’t test Iowa State’s safeties with long balls, but will likely have his leash loosened against a fellow FCS opponent.
McElvain is also light on his feet and excels at escaping the pocket. SUU could not contain UNLV’s dual-threat Armani Rogers and surrendered 114 yards and two TDs to him last week.
UNI brings back a number of skill players, including Deion McShane (eight catches against ISU) and Isaiah Weston (two catches for 48 yards).
The Panthers played a conservative, defensive style against Iowa State, but will likely try riskier plays in their second outing. Their identity is a ground and pound, defensively solid team that wears opponents down.
SUU struggled to keep the offense on the field against UNLV. Giving the defense a chance to rest will be key for Head Coach Demario Warren in his pursuit for his team’s first win in 2019.
The T-Birds beat UNI, 24-21, the last time they met in Cedar City.
Saturday’s broadcast will be streamed online on ESPN3 beginning at 3:00 p.m. MDT.
Story by: Connor Sanders
Photo courtesy of SUU Athletics Strategic Communication