There’s a strong sense of pride for Northern Iowa defensive players. The Panthers have a tradition of playing sound, solid defense with physical defensive linemen, terrific pass-rushers, hard-nosed linebackers and play-making defensive backs. That defensive tradition has led UNI to seven FCS playoff appearances in the 2010s. This year, the Panthers have made it to the quarterfinals for the first time since 2015. The UNI defense has been a big reason why.
Facing a high number of injuries to its offense, UNI has scored more than 20 points just once in its last five games. But the Panthers went 4-1. The defense has played light outs, allowing 10 points or less during this five-game stretch. If you extend it back even further, UNI has allowed 10 points or less in six of its last seven games.
That includes a 17-3 win in the first round of the playoffs against San Diego and a 13-10 win at No. 7 seed South Dakota State, a team the Panthers lost to 38-7 a month ago.
"We've been playing UNI defense," junior defensive end Elerson Smith told HERO Sports. "Since we've been here, our coaches and defensive staff always emphasize that our defense has historically been really good. And we're just fitting that mold."
On the season, UNI (10-4 overall) is allowing 17.7 points per game (No. 7 in the FCS), 104.7 rushing yards per game (No. 9), 189.6 passing yards per game (No. 20) and 294.3 total yards per game (No. 7).
The SDSU loss grounded the Panthers. They've since risen back up to play at this high level.
"That got away from us a little bit," Smith said. "And we switched more recently to a four-man front, which I personally enjoy a lot as a defensive lineman. But yeah, that (SDSU loss) gave us a reality check and put us in our place and we got back to doing what we do of playing hard, fast and physical."
Smith has played a massive role in UNI's defensive success and is the next in line of elite pass rushers the Panthers have had.
After 19 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks last year, Smith has taken it to a new level in 2019. The 6-foot-7 and 245-pound Minneapolis native has 60 tackles, 21.5 TFLs, 14 sacks, 14 QB hurries and five forced fumbles. The 14 sacks are the fourth most in the FCS and the 21.5 TFLs rank sixth.
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"It starts in the offseason," Smith said. "Our strength and conditioning staff is top of the line here. I came here at 195 pounds and I've been focused on putting on weight since Day 1. The offseason has a huge part in it. And also coach (Bryce) Paup has been a huge part of it as well with this being my second year being able to work with him. He has any information you can know in football and playing defensive line. And I think the d-line in general. I play next to (Jared) Brinkman and he helps open up a lot of gaps for me."
The Panthers have played motivated ball since Selection Sunday. With an 8-4 regular-season record and 6-2 mark in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, Smith said the team felt like it deserved a playoff seed. But they also understood the decisive loss to SDSU was costly. The Panthers have since been on a role and have been playing with a "prove it" mentality.
The Panthers are in that underdog role again Friday night as they visit No. 2 seed James Madison. JMU blends in a mix of power and speed, physicality and explosiveness to an offense that ranks first in the FCS with 44.1 points per game. The Dukes are dominant on defense as well, ranking third with 16.1 points allowed a game.
"We're treating it like a normal week, but we do have to respect that they are a top FCS team," Smith said. "But I think we are as well. We're going to have to be ready to go to war."
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