CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa Football ended its season with a tear, going 6-2 in its last eight games and defeating South Dakota 58-14 in the season finale.
UNI head coach Mark Farley underscored the Panthers’ mid-season turnaround as he looked back on the season following their win over the Coyotes on Saturday.
“The story of this team was how a group of players turned a season around in the middle of a season with no open date and reversed their path to get us in this position today,” Farley said. “This is more of a leadership issue than a play-calling deal. The seniors will be remembered for that.”
However, the Panthers’ recent surge proved not enough for a spot in the FCS playoffs after they stumbled to a 3-0 start with losses to No. 2 Air Force, North Dakota and Sacramento State.
Although UNI appeared to be picking up steam at the right time, UNI’s resume lacked the kind of quality win necessary to earn a playoff spot.
On Saturday, senior linebacker Bryce Flater said he felt UNI proved a point in their final game of the season and offered the team’s thoughts ahead of Sunday’s learning of their fate.
“We did what we could and it’s all in there [the FCS Playoff Committee’s] Hands now,” Flater said. “If we get an opportunity, we won’t let them down… Yes, we’ve had our ups and downs, but now we’re strong and we want to keep playing.”
To add insult to injury, UNI had the ball with a chance to take the lead in the fourth quarter against South Dakota State and Sacramento State, the two top playoff overall seeds.
As a conference, the Missouri Valley Football Conference only qualified for three teams—South Dakota State, North Dakota State, and North Dakota.
Three teams mark the lowest number of MVFC teams in the playoffs since 2018.
The playoff nudge closes the book of the Panthers season with UNI posting a 6-5 record and finishing fifth in MVFC standings.
The record, snub and overall standings don’t reflect how well the Panthers looked at the end of the season.
During their 3-0 start, the UNI defense struggled to make and stop tackles. In the last five games of the season, the Panthers completely changed tack, coming with one stop after another in time to put the offensive line up to win games.
According to Flater, the turnaround in UNI defense wasn’t a fluke, as the Panthers finished fifth overall on defense in the MVFC game.
“We came together as a unit,” Flater said. “We started meeting as a unit and making sure everyone was on the same page… We all got new coaches. That’s tough… We all buckled in – put our seatbelts on. We enjoyed the ride together and took the falls together.”
On offense, a struggle earlier in the season to end drives gave way to the Panthers, who finished as the top scorer and all-out offense in the MVFC game.
As the 13th passing offense in the nation, quarterback Theo Day’s play contributed greatly to the Panthers’ success on offense. Day finished the season with 3,121 rushing yards, 26 touchdowns and a 169.03 rating – the sixth-best yardage in the nation.
According to Farley, the Panthers’ offensive success isn’t down to talent, but rather to each individual’s faith in the system created by offensive coordinators Bodie Reeder and Ryan Clanton.
“They trust the system,” Farley said. “When the system works, you throw it to several people. If you only throw at one guy all the time, you have talent. If you throw to multiple people, you have a system. I think that’s what sets this team apart from last year’s team and teams from years past. We have a system built for this group of attacking players. It was built around them and by them. Then they bought in.”