FARGO — Northern Iowa head coach Mark Farley got right to the point when reflecting back on the Missouri Valley Football Conference spring season.
“I’d call it a disaster,” he said.
The Panthers went 3-4, had their starting quarterback disappear for a couple of weeks because of COVID-19 protocols and played the last game with just two defensive tackles and one defensive end available on the defensive line.
One of the safeties played defensive end in the 4-3 scheme. Add to the frustration level of all four losses coming by an average of 3.8 points and Farley couldn’t wait to put that year in the rearview mirror.
It was all about the consistency, or lack of it, he said.
“Mistakes started to show up and errors that normally don’t happen,” Farley said. “We even had a kicker who shanked a field goal with the opportunity to win the game. He wasn’t getting the repetitions.”
UNI returns starting quarterback Will McElvain, who completed just 51 percent of his passes and had just one touchdown pass in five games. It didn’t help that he lost his entire starting offensive line for one game or a receiver or two would be declared sidelined on a Friday, one day before a game.
The Panthers brought in Michigan State transfer Theo Day, at one time a four-star recruit and the top QB prospect in the state of Michigan. UNI didn’t lose anybody bringing back every offensive and defensive starter from the spring and all-conference kicker Matthew Cook.
“We need to get some rhythm and consistency,” Farley said of his offense. “We need to get the repetitions guys need to get good and the only way to do that is to have a consistent practice schedule and people know what they’re doing. We can’t be jumping all over.”
Like North Dakota State and Illinois State, the Panthers lost a host of players from the fall of 2019 to either training for the NFL Draft, graduation or the transfer portal.
That team that was expected to contend for a Valley title is old news. The Panthers were picked fifth in the preseason poll, tied for its lowest ranking in that poll in the history of the league.
UNI opens at Iowa State and a road game at Sacramento State before playing FCS newbie St. Thomas. The Tommies are in their first year of a reclassification from Division III.
“Their record speaks for itself, the way I read it, they moved out of their division because they won all the time,” Farley said. “That tells me you have a quality and confident football team. The name maybe isn’t recognizable yet but they’re out to make a name for themselves. Our challenge will be to prepare for that game the way we prepare for Iowa State.”
Here's a look at the schedule for the Kicking Through COVID series:
Aug. 4: Northern Iowa
Aug. 5: South Dakota
Aug. 6: South Dakota State
Aug. 7: Southern Illinois
Aug. 8: Western Illinois
Aug. 9: Youngstown State