The FCS spring season continues with a loaded Saturday slate. The No. 15 Illinois State Redbirds visit the No. 3 Northern Iowa Panthers at 5 p.m. ET.
These Missouri Valley teams met during the fall of 2019, with Northern Iowa beating Illinois State 27-10. If you’re betting online on this contest, the 1-1 Panthers have opened as seven-point favorites over the 0-1 Redbirds, with an over/under at 37 points.
Illinois State: Turnovers Galore
Illinois State is coming off a solid 2019 season, finishing 10-5 and reaching the FCS quarterfinals. The quarterfinal performance was a respectable one, a 9-3 defeat at the hands of the eventual champions North Dakota State.
With a No. 7 preseason rank in FCS college football, things couldn’t have gone much worse for Illinois State in its spring opener. The Redbirds lost to South Dakota 27-20, with quarterback Bryce Jefferson turning the ball over six times (four interceptions, two fumbles).
The second-year starter will look to get things right against a UNI secondary that held Youngstown State to 64 yards passing. Beyond the turnovers, it was shaping up to be a dominant opening win for Illinois State, which was up 17-0 in the second quarter.
Running back Pha’leak Brown had 17 carries for 86 yards, with Jefferson tacking on 65 rushing yards to his 280 through the air. After a modest sophomore season, wide receiver Austin Nagel came alive with five catches for 132 yards.
All three of South Dakota’s touchdowns were thanks to the offensive turnovers, with no touchdown drive exceeding 40 yards. The Redbirds’ rush defense, in particular, held strong throughout, limiting South Dakota to just 79 yards on the ground.
Northern Iowa: Defense Leading the Way
Northern Iowa made college football news and moved up to No. 3 in the FCS rankings with its most recent win, 21-0 over Youngstown State. The shutout victory was the Panthers’ first win of the year after a heartbreaking last-second loss in their spring opener to South Dakota State.
UNI went up 24-20 late in the fourth quarter, only to watch South Dakota State answer with a touchdown with 24 seconds remaining. Two games in, the Panthers have shown the moxie that makes them a top 10 team, following up on an FCS semifinals appearance in 2019.
Sophomore quarterback Will McElvain has had a fine yet unspectacular start, throwing for 348 total yards, completing 58% of his passes, and throwing one touchdown and one interception. After a pitiful opening season rushing performance (28 total yards), the ground game came alive against Youngstown State, tallying 191 yards.
The backbone of this Northern Iowa team is its defense. The unit finished strong against South Dakota State, holding the opposition to seven points, three first downs and 68 total yards in the second half. Of course, the seven points were the walk-off touchdown, but it was a commendable effort nonetheless.
A couple of transfers from Division I Kansas have made their presence felt on this Panthers team. Running back Dom Williams scored twice against Youngstown State, while receiver Quan Hampton has led the team in yards in both games.
In a game with ranked Missouri Valley teams, this should be a good one. Taking a look at both teams, it’s hard to ignore the performance the Northern Iowa defense has shown in the last six quarters.
It’s an uphill climb for Illinois State and Jefferson. Can the quarterback correct his turnover mistakes from the season opener, or was it a sign of things to come?
While both teams made runs in the FCS playoffs in 2019, the deeper run by Northern Iowa, along with returning experience, D-I transfers and a smothering defense, has me leaning towards the Panthers to pick up their second win of the season.
When making your college football picks, give the seven points and go with Northern Iowa.