CEDAR FALLS – The well-worn cliche is defense wins championships. Northern Iowa hopes to give proof to the conventional wisdom Saturday.
The No. 25 Panthers face No. 5 Eastern Washington in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs at Roos Field in Cheney, Washington.
EWU ranks second in total offense among FCS teams, averaging 563 yards per game. UNI is 15th in total defense, allowing an average of 296 yards a game.
“They’re exactly what everybody would think they are because of their tradition. They are a wide-open, spread offense that scores a lot of points, that has a great quarterback, and that’s Eastern Washington football," said UNI head coach Mark Farley this week during his media availability.
That defense may be peaking at just the right time. UNI posted a record-breaking 12-sack day in shutting down Western Illinois during a 41-3 triumph inside the UNI-Dome on Saturday. It's a performance they hope to repeat on EWU's red turf this week.
Said EWU head coach Aaron Best: “We know the journey that we must travel, and therefore we’ll go attack it."
It also will be a matchup of the Missouri Valley Football Conference Defensive Player of the Year vs. the Big Sky Offensive Player of the year.
Jared Brinkman garnered the defensive honor Wednesday, and EWU quarterback Eric Barriere received the offensive plaudits Tuesday. It's the second time for both players to earn the respective awards.
Barriere topped the Eagles’ list of all-conference selections that included first-teamers Talolo Limu-Jones (wide receiver) and Tristen Taylor (offensive line), both seniors. The full MVC all-conference teams will be announced Monday.
Barriere and UNI offensive lineman Trevor Penning also are finalists for the Stats Perform FCS Walter Payton Award, reserved for the top offensive player in the nation. Penning is the only lineman on the list.
UNI football is making its 22nd appearance in the NCAA Division IAA/Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, Eastern Washington its 15th. The Eagles won an FCS Championship in 2010 and lost to North Dakota State in 2018. UNI lost to Appalachian State in the 2005 championship game.
It will be the eighth meeting between the two teams, UNI leads the series, 6-1. EWU's sole win was on its home turf in 2016. This will be the fourth meeting of the teams in the playoffs.
Montana is the only team with more playoff appearances than UNI with 25.
UNI went 6-5 in the regular season and 4-4 in the MVC -- which landed six teams in the 24-team playoff field. The Panthers beat South Dakota State (8-3), Southern Illinois (7-4) and Sacramento State (9-2), which went 8-0 in the Big Sky to win the conference title. The strength of those victories earned the Panthers a playoff berth.
EWU went 2-1 against playoff teams.
The winner of the EWU/UNI game will play at No. 6-seed Montana (9-2) on Friday, Dec. 3.
The FCS Playoffs conclude with the national championship in Frisco, Texas, on Jan. 8.