The Hawkeyes will kickoff the 2014 season on Saturday when they face a in-state foe Northern Iowa. The Panthers will provide Iowa with a very tough test right out of the gate, led by star running back David Johnson and veteran quarterback Sawyer Kollmorgen. We go Behind Enemy Lines with the voice of Pathers Football, Gary Rima, who fills us in on the 2014 UNI squad and what to expect in the opener.
Q: Looking back on last season for the Panthers, they got off to a great start in the first month, including a win at Iowa State. Then they lost a heartbreaker at North Dakota State and three OT games. Injuries played a role. Did that kind of define the season?
RIMA: I think that was a big part of it. They were playing so well going into the North Dakota State game. They beat Iowa State in the opener and looked really good and you go into that game unbeaten and you knew it was going to be a great game. UNI was up 13 points going into the 4th quarter and then things just went wrong. Jake Farley broke his leg and he was the leader of the defense. That really hurt. Kollmorgen, the quarterback suffered a concussion late in the game and tried to keep playing and couldn't go. North Dakota State gets the two touchdowns late and pull that game out.
The injuries hurt the team and then later after the other losses the players talked about how they had let that loss linger too much. You have the two time national champs on the ropes and didn't finish it off and instead of just flushing it and moving on, you let that linger into the next week and got beat by Southern Illinois. When you look at those three overtime losses in a row, including two in double overtime, the one that really stood out to me as I reflect back on it was the home loss to South Dakota. They were down 28-7 with a little over 3 minutes left in the third quarter. When the Panthers are at home and they have a three touchdown lead, they usually don't blow that lead. When they came back and tied that game and won it in double OT, that loss was hard to figure. It turned into a 0-5 start in conference play, which has never happened before. The encouraging thing was they rebounded and won the last three games in conference play and finished 7-5. I think you can attribute some of those losses to key injuries, also letting that loss linger, and it was just a lot of tough breaks. It just seemed like in that five game losing streak, whatever could go wrong, did go wrong. The one positive was they found a way to rally and win their last three games and get on the cusp of being in the playoffs.
Q: Looking at the Panthers this year, the strength seems to be on offensive with Sawyer Kollmorgen back and David Johnson returns and they have a couple of really good receivers returning, along with an experienced offensive line. Talk about this offense.
RIMA: I think going into the season opener, I don't think there is any doubt that the offense is ahead of the defense and looks better on paper, simply because you have a 10 of your 11 starters returning. The only loss was one offensive lineman. Both quarterbacks are back that played a lot last season in Kollmorgen and Carnes. Carnes actually played in all 12 games and Kollmorgen in 9. You have your top running back returns in David Johnson and all the tight ends are back. UNI is also really pretty deep at wide receiver. Last year before the game at Iowa State, they lost their top receiver in Brett LeMaster, who had a season ending knee injury. He is back and he's 100% healthy. You put him in there with Vereen and Owens, who return, the offense has a ton of weapons returning.
Sometimes you have a lot of skill guys back, but you are rebuilding the offensive line or you have your line back, but you have to rebuild with a new quarterback, but this year the whole offense is basically back intact and that is the reason people are pretty excited about what UNI can do offensively. David Johnson is probably the marquee guy on offense, but there are so many other weapons at tight end, wide receiver, and two very good quarterbacks.
Q: Do you expect that they will rotate their quarterbacks or kind of spot Carnes in there from time to time in situations?
RIMA: It might be similar to what they did against Iowa State last year. If I had to predict, I would say Kollmorgen leads the team out there early and then I won't be surprised to see Carnes in there early too for a series or two. Maybe even a play or two. I think it will unfold as the season goes along. Coach Farley has talked a lot about this, that in just about every season it's taken two quarterbacks to get thru the season. I think at least early on there is a plan to use both of them and they have to have Carnes ready to go. In the non-conference they might even have both of them on the field and have Carnes running the offense.
Q: Iowa fans are a little curious about how former Hawkeye Barkley Hill is doing with the Panthers. Also Darrien Miller, who Iowa recruited pretty hard, how is he doing?
RIMA: I wouldn't be surprised if by Saturday that Barkley Hill isn't one of the first running backs into the game when Johnson isn't in there. He has been very good in fall camp and he's ready to go. It appears to me that Hill has moved up the depth chart quickly. With Miller, it has been a little bit of a slow process for him to get comfortable with the offense. I would say he might be more of a contributor later in the season just because he will be more familiar with the offense at that point.
Q: Looking at the two deeps for UNI, the one thing that jumps out immediately is there's no Jake Farley in there. What is his status for the Iowa game?
RIMA: Jake Farley is not 100% coming off that broken leg last year. There's been some pain during the summer. He has seen some other specialists to try and figure out what is causing it. Actually a week ago he started practicing, but it was all non-contact drills. He is getting better every day and to be honest, he is probably a day to day and game to game decision. If he is feeling good and is mobile and can be effective, I think he plays. But, if there is any doubt, then he won't go. I wouldn't be surprised if he was held out for the first game and maybe even the second game because they have a bye week in there, so it would give him three full weeks to get ready for the final ten games of the season. I know they really want him ready for the conference games because those are must win games if you want to be an FCS playoff team. In saying all that, his status is a huge question mark for the defense overall because I think he is a great linebacker and a coach on the field.
Q: What do you see as the strengths on defense and where are the concerns?
RIMA: The strength is up the middle with Williams at defensive tackle. I think he is one of the best defensive tackles or nose tackles we have had at UNI and we have had some pretty good ones over the years. Mac O'Brien is back and has been cleared for his 6th year. He broke his foot last summer and missed his entire 5th year. He will have an impact because he's a smart and intelligent defensive lineman. With him and Williams up front, I think they can be a load to handle.
I think our secondary is as good and as deep as I can remember. We have had some good cornerbacks and safeties over the years, but as far as an overall unit and the depth, they are really solid. If there's a guy that gets banged up or whatever, they have guys backing them up that are just as good. They have Dolraent back and he led the team in interceptions last year. Hall has been as good of a defensive back as we have ever had. Mitchell led the team last year at safety and he's back and then Kilfoy is as physical of a safety as I can remember. You have those four guys all back as the starters and then quality guys backing up that are just as good and waiting for their chance to get in there. I think the strength is definitely in the secondary and up front.
The question marks are at defensive end and at linebacker. Is there enough depth at linebacker without Jake Farley and those are just big question marks heading into the season.
Q: What's the feeling in Cedar Falls going into Saturday's game? Last year the Panthers went into Ames and won at Iowa State. We all remember the 2009 game at Kinnick, where UNI nearly beat a very good Iowa team.
RIMA: I think one of the things that helps this team is that guys like Kollmorgen and Johnson and a lot of other guys on this team, have played at Iowa. Right after we played at Wisconsin, we played at Iowa and a lot of the guys played in that game or were there for the game. I think it certainly helps in terms of knowing that it will be like at a great place like Kinnick Stadium or in Madison, or at Jack Trice in Ames. I don't think there will be an awe factor with a Big Ten stadium because they have been there. They haven't been able to get out of any of those games with a victory and that is the goal. I think it will be a confident team coming in there. I say that because I've been with this team for 22 years and I have never seen them come into a game like this and think, let's just try and make it respectable. When we played at BYU, or Wisconsin, or the Iowa game in 2009, I felt like they were going in with a good game plan and that they were confident that if they went out and executed, they could find a way to win. Now, it won't be easy playing at Iowa and everyone knows that. The Panthers are certainly an underdog going in, but I just sense being around the team that wherever they are playing they feel like they are going to win. I talk to the coaches and players after the games they didn't win and they are generally disappointed about the loss. Two years ago at Wisconsin, they really felt like they had the players to go in there and win and got beat 26-21 and had the football in the 4th quarter and were driving for a go ahead touchdown. They have a lot of confidence, but they are smart enough to know that they are in for a big time challenge anytime they play Iowa or any Big Ten team.
Q: There's probably a little extra motivation for some of the guys, particularly the in-state kids on the roster, who went to camps at Iowa or maybe even grew up Hawkeye fans when they were younger. Does that add a little extra motivation for some of the guys?
RIMA: Players will talk about it sometimes. I know when we played at Iowa State last year, that question came up to some of the guys. They said now they get to play in a Big 12 or Big Ten stadium and I wasn't heavily recruited by those schools, so yeah, there is some of that with the Iowa kids having a little chip on their shoulder. I think once the game gets kicked off and the first few players are run it kind of goes away quickly. I do think that sometimes they go into the games they have a little extra motivation to show that they can play at the BCS level. Everyone knows recruiting isn't a perfect science and there are a lot of teams that now see they missed on David Johnson or wished they would have recruited him. I think the guys need to carry a little bit of that into the game, but it's not the most important thing in their mind. They want to accomplish more than just look at me, I could play at this level.