CEDAR FALLS -- Northern Iowa may have meet the current king of the Missouri Valley Football Conference last Saturday in Fargo, N.D., but the gauntlet of the Panthers' Valley schedule is not over.
UNI (4-4 overall, 3-2 MVFC) will face its fourth consecutive FCS Top Ten opponent with sixth-ranked South Dakota (7-1, 4-1) Saturday in the UNI-Dome at 1 p.m.
Asked if the Coyotes have been a surprise, UNI head coach Mark Farley said they would probably fall in that category, but back that comment by saying that doesn't take anything away from the results USD has produced.
"They've had just one game, at Illinois State, where they did not look like themselves, but other than that this is an exceptional football team," Farley said. "The teams they have beaten, Bowling Green early in the football season, and doing what they have done against Southern Illinois and other teams."
UNI is 2-1 during its tough stretch, but is coming off its worst performance in five weeks, a 30-14 loss to North Dakota State. Farley still believes his team controls its own destiny as far as the FCS playoffs.
The Panthers are one of eight MVFC teams that rank in the Top 20 for FCS schools in the Sagarin Rankings, and UNI’s schedule strength is rated as the most difficult in the nation by three different metrics -- BennettRank, Sagarin, Massey.
"We have the number one, toughest schedule," questioned Farley. "It doesn't surprise me. We just need to line up and play this weekend. We need to do a good job this weekend, because I believe this weekend might be ... is ... we have to do a great job this weekend and then take care of business after this weekend.
"Right now it is getting to the weekend and through the weekend and playing the way we want to play because this is a very good football team."
More concerning for Farley is getting quarterback Eli Dunne back in sync. When Dunne is in rhythm, he was been instrumental in the Panthers' wins over South Dakota State and Youngstown State that propelled them back into the FCS playoff picture.
Saturday against NDSU, the Bison made things uncomfortable for Dunne early leading to five turnovers, and Farley said the team needs Dunne to get back in his groove.
"Eli got out of sync, no question," Farley said. "He got out of rhythm and never got back in rhythm. We got to get him back in rhythm. When we don't have turnovers we win. When we have turnovers we lose. That is pretty simple."
In UNI's wins it is a plus-4 in turnover margin, while in its four losses it is a minus-8.
HEALTH REPORT: Farley expects most of the players who dressed and played Saturday should be ready to go.
Safety A.J. Allen, outside linebacker Keelon Brookins and safety Elijah Campbell all had to be helped off the field against NDSU in the second half, but all returned to play.
Offensive tackle Cal Twait dressed but did not play, however he is expected to go Saturday against the Coyotes.
"Cal probably could've played in that game if we needed him," Farley said. "But every time we play him too soon that ankle gets tore up and he is back on the sidelines another week and a half. So we want to get him back and keep him back so hopefully we can put him on the field and he can play the whole football game.
"He wanted to play, but we want him back for good so hopefully this weekend."
ANTHEM KNEEL: Typically UNI is not on the field when the national anthem is played, but NDSU conducted the national anthem after both teams took the field.
Panther defensive end Rickey Neal, with teammates flanking him, choose to kneel at this time and his decision blew up on social media afterward.
Farley was not aware it happened, but he conversed with Neal about his decision.
"After the conversation, Rickey realizes that there are other ways he can show his support or concerns without doing it during the national anthem," Farley said. "(In conversation) He was very good about communicating what his thoughts were, but at the same time he understands now that there are better ways to do it."