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NORMAL, Ill. — The proverbial driver’s seat is empty in advance of Saturday’s FCS Top Ten showdown of No. 9 Northern Iowa and No. 7 Illinois State at Hancock Stadium.

With four games left, including Saturdays, the Panthers (5-3 overall, 3-1 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference) and the Redbirds (6-2, 3-1) understand it is a huge showdown with some major implications.

Neither team has a win over a ranked foe and this is a game with a win could propel them further into the discussion of potential national playoff seed and a bye in the opening week of the FCS playoffs.

A loss means an uphill battle to make the playoffs alone, especially with both teams still having road trips to No. 4 South Dakota State left on its schedule.

While UNI and Illinois State acknowledge its a big game, both teams are taking a micro view.

“It is a big game,” UNI quarterback Will McElvain said. “We’ve been in games like this one before. What is good about this one is it is later in the year as opposed to early and now is the time of year where you can win a big game and go on a run.

“Yeah, this is a big one to go win.”

Illinois State head coach Brock Spack says he doesn’t like to bring up the playoff word to his team.

“These games are important, but I think it is try to win another game,” Spack said. “When you win in November it puts a good feeling in you because it is late in the season ... This ... every Saturday in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, in my opinion, is a playoff game, but November is a little more important.”

The early betting lines on the game see it as a tight, defensive contest. 5Dimes has UNI as a 1-point favorite, with the under/over set at 33.

Defense has been the name of the game for both.

The Panthers rank in the Top 20 nationally in the FCS in four defensive categories — total defense-13th (319.4), sacks-8th (3.38), tackles for loss-9th (8.3) and turnover margin-14th (+7). The Redbirds counter with a defense that ranks ninth in scoring defense (16.6), second in sacks (4.13) and 18th in total (324.0).

“They have a really good defense,” UNI head coach Mark Farley said. “A lot has to do with their defensive front four, but also has a lot to do with their defensive coverage. They have been hard to get points on, hard to move the ball on and they have just been outstanding.”

Leading the defensive effort is defensive end Romeo McKinight and his 9 1/2 tackles for loss and eight sacks. In the secondary, safety Luther Kirk and corner Devin Taylor are both returning all-conference performers.

“They got good pass rushers and they mix things up with the way they send blitzes,” McElvain said. “With the guys, we got up front on the defensive line are just as good and give us a good look. Our O-line and I at quarterback have a pretty good feel of what it is going to be like.”

The Redbirds are wary of UNI’s offense, especially wide receiver Isaiah Weston and his 26.8 yards per catch average that has led to 10 touchdowns and 856 receiving yards.

“80 is as good of a player at receiver I’ve seen in our league,” Spack said. “The quarterback is a very good runner, can throw it and is a good little athlete, I shouldn’t say little. He’s not little, he’s just a good athlete that puts a lot of stress on the defense.

“They are not going to be intimidated by us. They’ve played some really good teams this year on the road as well.”

Illinois State will attack UNI offensively with a powerful run game led by James Robinson, who ranks sixth in the FCS with his 115.5 yards per game average. The Redbirds have run 334 run plays compared to just 167 pass plays in 2019, exactly a 2-to-1 ratio.

A year ago, the Panthers held Robinson to 40 yards on 16 carries in a 26-16 win inside the UNI-Dome.

“I don’t think it was anything special (UNI did in stopping Robinson),” Farley said. “We had a pretty good day last year, It is a whole different setting when you go to Illinois State.”

Fast starts have propelled the Redbirds, especially in their three-game win streak since losing to No. 1 North Dakota State at home (37-3). To date this season, ISU has outscored opponents 55-33 in the first quarter and 113-57 in the first half. And if you take away the NDSU game, those numbers inflate to 52 to 17 and 110 to 34.

“A lot of equity between the two teams,” Farley said. “Home and away (in the series) ... I think we have had our share of wins at home. It is winning on the road that is the hard part.

“Of course, when you have two equal teams on the field, and two Top Ten teams you have to be consistent. You have to find a way to make some plays.”

This article originally ran on wcfcourier.com.

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