Dieker, receiving corps could prosper

By Gus Bode

Northern Iowa boasts an offense that averages 25 points and 373 yards of total offense per game, but SIU head coach Dale Lennon said it’s not the Panthers’ offense that bothers him.

Lennon said while the UNI offense certainly poses a threat to the SIU defense, the Panthers’ defense is the so-called X factor in Saturday’s game.

“Defense is their strength,” Lennon said. “The style of play that they run is predicated by their defense. They take advantage of field positions, and if you look at lot of their scoring drives, they have started with good field position and that is a sign of good defense.”

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The Panthers’ rush defense is stout to say the least.

It held South Dakota State, a team that has scored 75 percent of its scoring on the ground, without a rushing touchdown on just 15 rushing yards.

The No. 1 rushing defense in the Missouri Valley Conference will undoubtedly wreak havoc on a Saluki offense that boasts the second best rusher in the conference in running back Larry Warner.

Warner said the rushing corps is using the challenge as fuel to feed the fire.

“It pretty much motivates all of us,” Warner said. “I mean, they have allowed 51 total yards to running backs so that is a test for us this week. We have to go out there against the No. 1 rushing defense and try and get the best of them.”

Last season, SIU garnered just 70 total rushing yards in a 30-24 loss.

But Lennon said UNI’s strong rush defense could lead to its demise Saturday at McAndrew Stadium.

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“There are going to be tackles-for-a-loss and there will be a quarterback sack here and there,” Lennon said. “But because of that, they give you the potential for the big play and that is the give-and-take factor that we have to be ready for.”

The Panthers’ passing defense has allowed 383.7 passing yards per game – more than a 5-to-1 ratio between the pass and the run – and give opposing offense’s nearly ten yards per catch.

SIU quarterback Chris Dieker said the team is always committed to a balance between running and passing but does believe the Panthers’ passing defense can be exposed Saturday.

“It’s not necessarily a flaw, but I think they might go so much against the run that they give up a bunch of passing yards,” he said. “There might a play here or there where we want to go deep, but we have to make good decisions.”

Defensively, SIU will have to tackle a three-headed beast that includes UNI quarterback Pat Grace, running back Corey Lewis and receiver Johnny Gray.

Lewis headlines a rushing attack that averages 192 yards per game.

Listed as a fullback two seasons ago, Grace also represents a threat to rush out of the pocket at any given moment.

The duo represents a formidable challenge to an SIU defense that has been solid against the run all season.

“That is why they are good,” Lennon said. “They have a good running game and a good running quarterback who is not scared to run with the ball.”

Junior linebacker Brandin Jordan said stopping the run will be vital to stopping the Panthers’ offense and said the defense will look to halt the run early.

“We want to come out and stop the run every week,” he said. “We want to shut them down with the run first and make them throw.”

Should the Panthers’ running game falter, though, UNI has a response in wide out Johnny Gray.

Gray has caught a touchdown in each of the last two games and also poses a threat on kick-off and punt returns.

UNI coach Mark Farley said Gray, whose versatility could be compared to SIU running back Larry Warner, gives the Panthers a big-play option.

And the big play is something Lennon has attempted to prohibit.

Lennon said limiting the big plays on defense is a main concern and has used the extra week of preparation to instill that in the game plan.

“We had a good opportunity to take a look at what we are doing offensively and defensively last week,” Lennon said. “And coming into this week, we were able to identify the game plan and we knew exactly what we needed to accomplish.”

Brian Feldt can be reached at 536-3311 ext. 256 or [email protected]

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