AMES — Iowa State, as we know, has produced more than its share of lengthy quarterback competitions in recent years.
You’ve seen nothing like Northern Iowa’s current battle, though.
The Panthers are publicly sorting through four — count ‘em, four — capable play callers in advance of Saturday’s 7 p.m. season-opening clash with the Cyclones.
The quarterbacks in question: Aaron Bailey, Dalton Demos, Eli Dunne and Sawyer Kollmorgen. And that last one taps bitter, but respectful memories from ISU coaches, players and fans alike.
“I know this about Kollmorgen: he whipped us two years ago as a starter at our place and I think he’s a sensational quarterback,” said ISU coach Paul Rhoads, whose team fell 28-20 to the Kollmorgen-led Panthers in the 2013 season opener. “You get a transfer from this level (Bailey, from Illinois), you know he’s a quality player. You’ve got a junior college player (Demos) and you’ve got a high school player in this state (Dunne) who we looked at very, very closely. A coach’s son who threw it around in high school and is very capable of throwing it around at any level, so I think there’s a mix of athleticism, I think there’s a mix of pocket guys, I think there’s a good mix of intelligence and obviously that’s what’s making the decision hard on them.”
UNI also features a new offensive coordinator in Joe Davis, who brings a no-huddle, spread approach from Division II Shippensberg (Pa.) University.
It’s his system that ISU coaches and players are preparing for, not any of the individual quarterbacks that may or may not start for the Panthers Saturday night.
“They can’t go this long with that position and be juggling two types of offense,” Rhoads said. “They can’t say, ‘Well, if this is the guy, we’re going to do this, and if this is the guy, we’re going to do that.’ They’re going to to run their offense and they’re going to plug in the best guy or guys that can operate it. The offense is fast. As I discussed, it’s multi-formational. You’re going to have to defend the whole field as they spread it and they’ll provide great, great challenges.”
That’s been the case since the end of the Dan McCarney era. The Cyclones are 3-2 against the FCS power in the past five meetings. Two of ISU’s wins over UNI in that span were by one point (27-27 in 2006 and 20-19 in 2011). Only two of those games were decided by more than eight points — a 27-0 Cyclones triumph in 2010 and a 24-13 Panthers win in 2007.
“These FCS teams, they have a lot more chip on their shoulder playing a (FBS) school, so you know that they’re going to bring it every play,” said ISU star receiver Allen Lazard. “They take a lot of pride in beating us or any other big school from a power conference, but you’ve just got to know that you’ve got to treat them just like every other opponent and play your best.”
Case in point: last season.
ISU stormed to an early 14-0 lead on four-time defending FCS champ North Dakota State in the 2014 opener, only to suffer a spate of injuries, sputter in the face of adversity and surrender 34 unanswered points in a tone-setting defeat.
“Losing to a D-IAA school, being in the Big 12, it just kills your motivation, it kills your confidence,” Cyclones safety Kamari Cotton-Moya said. “Some people come back from it. Some people don’t. In the last two years, I don’t think we ever came back from it. This year, I believe we’re facing a good opponent. UNI’s great. They’ve got a lot of returners. Beating them will help our confidence and I think that’s what we’ve got to get done.”
Even if it involves sifting through game video from a Division II school as well as clips of four different quarterbacks.
“I feel like everyone on the team has taken all the coaching, so whatever offense they come in with — they could come in with an offense we’ve never seen before and I feel like the coaches are going to prepare us and put us in the right spot for it,” Cotton-Moya said.
Rhoads said Monday his young, but talented running backs have been wearing blue jerseys lately and that’s one of the reasons a clear leader hasn’t emerged. Another reason: Rhoads plans to adopt a “hot hand” approach to who gets the most snaps at the position, which features two backs (Mike Warren and Joshua Thomas) who have never taken a game snap.
“The plan would be to see a lot of bodies out there carrying the ball and carrying it well,” Rhoads said. “Do I have ‘Well, he’s going to get the first carry and those guys are going to get the next there plays in?’ No, it’s not that specific. We’ll play one back, we’ll play two back. We’ll play a number of running backs on the field, then as the game goes along, who’s playing well and what the situations are, we’ll be able to go from there.”
Rhoads did say former wide receiver Trever Ryen has been shifted to the offensive backfield to augment depth.
“We thought maybe we needed some added speed back there,” Rhoads added.
NOT “SHOCKED” BY COUSIN DEPARTURE
Rhoads said second-strong defensive tackle Devlyn Cousin’s decision to leave the team did not come as a huge surprise. Cousin had one sack last season while playing through a painful elbow injury.
“I wasn’t shocked,” Rhoads said. “For a guy in his fourth year who loves the program and loves his teammates, you’d have liked to have seen him stick it out and be part of finishing this. But in Devlyn’s opinion, and I support (it), he was looking to finish it up somewhere else. He’s in school here at Iowa State University and wants to finish out a great semester here because he likes the education he’s been receiving and then he’ll look to finish up somewhere else.”
Tight end Cole Anderson will undergo surgery Thursday to repair an ACL injury, Rhoads said. Other than Anderson and backup center Patrick Scoggins (knee), the team should be healthy heading into Saturday’s season opener, including at running back. “They’re all full speed and ready to go today,” Rhoads said. … Late arriving JUCO transfer defensive tackle Bobby Leath is a little bit ahead of schedule, Rhoads said — even though he’s not yet listed on the depth chart. “He had some shoulder problems throughout camp ,so he’s not taken every practice rep and even with that being the case, I think he’s picked up well on what we’re asking out of him in the position. Physically, he’s an impressive guy.”