By Kyle Roth
College Sports Journal
FARGO, ND. — Northern Iowa redshirt freshman quarterback Sawyer Kollmorgen faces a tall task in this first half of the 2012 Football Championship Subdivision season.
Brought in from the state of Oklahoma and having to fill the shoes of UNI’s sensational Tirrell Rennie after the latter’s graduation, Kollmorgen’s first five games have featured a schedule as brutal as any in the country, playing Big Ten opponents Wisconsin and Iowa and facing in consecutive weeks the top two teams in the country, Youngstown State and North Dakota State.
Unfortunately for Kollmorgen, whose numbers have looked like those of a fifth-year senior against the meat grinder of a schedule the Panthers have played thus far, UNI sits at a disappointing 1-3 with their playoff hopes on the line as they’ve yet to register a Division-I victory, putting in critical danger the seven-win benchmark the FCS playoff committee has traditionally used to determine playoff eligibility. The Panthers now find themselves in the unenviable position of having to win out the remainder of their ticket in a brutally-tough Missouri Valley Football Conference to have an outside shot at a playoff bid.
Standing in their way this weekend is the FCS’s top-ranked team, the defending national champion North Dakota State Bison. Though the Panthers have won all but one of the games between the two programs since NDSU came up to the FCS in 2008, this game promises to be a slugfest that rivals the main attractions of the FCS season thus far.
Last year’s matchup was equally promising, as the second-ranked Panthers seemed to be destined for yet another undisputed MVFC title before the Bison, at that point undefeated, used a powerful running game and a timely fumble recovery for a score to put away the demons of four straight losses to the Panthers and continued their eventual quest for national title glory. In a sold out Fargodome, the atmosphere was electric and the game had less of a feel of a football game and more of a battle as the two teams tussled for every inch. This year’s match, set in Cedar Falls, IA, is certain to be the same kind of atmosphere.
On paper, the Bison have been all but unstoppable this season as they’ve outscored their first three opponents 140-14, including last weekend’s 66-7 beatdown of hapless Prairie View A&M. The Bison have been aided by a passing game that rivals the days of Steve Walker, who led the team to back-to-back 10-1 seasons in 2006 and 2007. Quarterback Brock Jensen, a junior, has been simply sensational as he’s accrued a passer rating of 179.60 en route to seven scores, no interceptions, and a white-hot 70.1-percent completion percentage. For the catalyst of Jensen’s ludicrous numbers, look no further than receiver Zach Vraa, Minnesota’s 2009 Mr. Football, who spent the past two seasons on the sidelines with broken collarbones. Vraa’s incredible body control, elite size and sticky fingers have resulted in nearly 100 receiving yards per game, and that passing attack will look to sharpen its teeth on a stingy Panther defense, the 3-4 nature of which has given the Bison fits over the past few seasons under the Pro-style scheme favored by offensive coordinator Brent Vigen.
On the other side of the ball, a Panther offense averaging over 30 points per game and led by the sensational Kollmorgen will try to find a crack in arguably the top defense in the country. Backed up by a pair of experienced running backs in David Johnson and Carlos Anderson (who doubles as a high-flying return specialist), Kollmorgen will try to break the incredible mojo the Bison have been able to garner, allowing just five touchdowns over their past seven games, which includes their 2011playoff run versus the elite offenses of James Madison, Georgia Southern, Lehigh, and Sam Houston State.
This weekend pits an irresistible force against an immovable object, and with the fireworks that frequently fly between these two teams (to the tune of a handful of unsportsmanlike conduct penalties over the past few seasons) and the conference implications, it promises to deliver as a marquee matchup that will be looked back upon with fervor.
With the slightly porous performances of Northern Iowa’s defense as they struggle with injuries, I give the edge to North Dakota State in the game but rest assured, the game will be anything but a blowout on either side.
My pick: NDSU 27, UNI 20.