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Jeff Kolpack, Published August 06 2013

Easier schedule awaits UNI football this season

FARGO – The first step to restore Northern Iowa’s status as a Missouri Valley Football Conference title contender came without a snap being taken. This year, the Panthers’ schedule has more of an FCS reality to it.

Last year was brutal.

Four of the first five games last season looked like this: at Wisconsin, at Iowa, at Youngstown State and at home against North Dakota State. Moreover, the other game in that stretch was against Central State (Ohio), a Division II opponent that was considered a non-counter for the FCS playoffs.

“It was extremely difficult,” said head coach Mark Farley. “Looking back on it now, we were sitting here at this time last year and we knew we had to win either the Wisconsin or Iowa game to get into the playoffs as an at-large team. With the Division II game in there, now you’re possibly looking at not getting enough wins. When you start talking like that, you see how you can get backed into a corner before the season starts.”

There is no corner this year. The Panthers open at Iowa State, but then have FCS opponents Drake, Northern Colorado and McNeese State (La.). The UNC game is on the road, but the Bears have also struggled since leaving Division II a decade ago.

The Panthers return seven starters on offense led by quarterback Sawyer Kollmorgen and running back David Johnson.

“Those are two players we’ll build around and try to find the best personnel to match up with them,” Farley said.

The Panthers will have three new starters on the offensive line. Defensively, senior linebacker Jordan Gackle is the top returning tackler. Replacing two starting cornerbacks will be crucial.

“The biggest thing is our secondary,” Farley said. “I think we’ll be similar to years past in the defensive front and linebackers. I think they’ll fit with the culture of our team in the past.”

Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack can be reached at (701) 241-5546.

Kolpack’s NDSU media blog can be found

at www.areavoices.com/bisonmedia