With a top-10 football matchup looming between Weber State and Northern Iowa, I reached out to UNI beat writer Jim Nelson of the Waterloo Courier to get his insight into the Panthers.
Weber State and Northern Iowa kick off at 6 p.m. Saturday at Stewart Stadium.
Here are five questions with Nelson, who you can follow on Twitter @Nelley13.
1. UNI has a couple surprising results already: nearly stunning Iowa State, and needing a comeback in a low-scoring slugfest to beat Idaho State. Why were those games so different, and what led to last week's close call?
Nelson: First, you have to hand it to Idaho State. The Bengals played an excellent game, played inspired and with a purpose.
Looking deeper into it, the Panthers hurt themselves offensively with some early penalties that stalled drives. Also, it was apparent that, coming off its bye week, UNI's timing was not nearly as sharp as it had been two weeks prior in a dominating win over Southern Utah.
Defensively, after Idaho State had some success on the ground, UNI adjusted to some wrinkles it was not suspecting and for the most part shut them down, allowing just 203 total yards. The biggest play the Bengals had in the game was a 27-yard fake punt run when a defender blew his assignment/read and left the play wide open.
2. What led redshirt freshman Will McElvain to win the starting QB job and what has he shown through the first three games?
Nelson: Consistency. He was the most consistent of the quarterback candidates in his daily preparation and performance on the practice field.
In the first three games, he's had more good than bad. McElvain has not thrown an interception in 93 attempts. He's made some plays by extending them with his scrambling ability. And, he's shown he can make all the throws from the chain-moving outs and curls, to the deep ball.
However, I know the coaching staff is constantly reminding him to more patient in the pocket and scrambling should be a last-resort option. He got away with that in high school but, while UNI coaches are enamored with that ability, they still want to see more patience in the pocket to allow plays to develop.
3. What's the strength of UNI's defense? The Panther D has pitched a few strong ones so far.
Nelson: It really has been across the board, but the front four and the back four/five — you will see the Panthers flip in and out of a 4-3 look to a 3-3-5 look — have been strong. Defensive ends Elerson Smith and Seth Thomas have really elevated their games, while tackles Jared Brinkman and Tim Butcher have gobbled up a lot of linemen to free up UNI's linebackers to make plays.
On the back end, the Panthers moved all-conference corner Xavior Williams to safety in the preseason and it has had spectacular results. He has eight pass break-ups in three games. The emergence of true freshman corner Omar Brown allowed that move to happen.
Finally, the defensive staff has a ton of experience and has shown, time after time and year after year, its ability to adapt on the fly. Mark Farley is a defensive coach. Defensive line coach Bryce Paup was the NFL defensive player of the year in 1995. DJ Vokolek (linebackers) and Jeremiah Johnson (coordinator) are long-time coaches.
4. Who are the gamebreaker-type players to watch, especially the offensive weapons for McElvain?
Nelson: Receivers Isaiah Weston and Jaylin James provide size and speed, both are listed at 6-foot-4. UNI will try to get the ball often and in different ways to slot receiver Deion McShane, who can flat out fly.
The Panthers are still trying to find answer at running back. Senior Trevor Allen has been a consistent performer for four years, and is a threat out of the backfield. Sophomore Tyler Hoosman showed signs of being a lead back last week against ISU.
Defensively, the 6-foot-7, 245-pound Elerson Smith is becoming a force. Dating back to last season, in Smith's last six games, he has recorded 13 1/2 tackles for loss and 10 sacks. Xavior Williams is one of the top defensive backs in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
5. UNI has yet to leave the state of Iowa before this matchup, and it's also at altitude on the Wasatch Front. Has Mark Farley instituted anything different in game prep to prepare his team for the fairly unique situation?
Nelson: I talked to some players about the altitude issue. Several of them mentioned that they really felt it two years ago in Cedar City more than when UNI played in Missoula last season. Among their comments was that it was more noticeable late in the game than it was early. This is where UNI's depth will be tested as Coach Farley said he and his staff will have to alter their substitution patterns to make sure key players are fresh in what is expected to be a 60-minute battle.