Aug 30, 2014; Iowa City, IA, USA; Northern Iowa Panthers head coach Mark Farley talks to his team against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Kinnick Stadium. Iowa beat Northern Iowa 31-23. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports
Mark Farley is no stranger to the challenge ahead of his Northern Iowa Panthers on Saturday when they visit Jack Trice Stadium to open the 2021 season.
The Panthers’ 20-year head coach is well aware of the difficulties presented by No. 7 Iowa State and the Cyclones’ bevvy of returning production at nearly every position.
It should hardly surprise anyone to know the secret is out about Iowa State football and the program’s high expectations entering the 3:30 p.m. kick set to be broadcasted via Big 12 Now on ESPN+, especially when you consider Farley has seen most of these Cyclones before, two years ago during the Panthers’ 29-26 overtime loss in Ames.
“Well, it’s well documented that these guys are really good,” Farley said during his weekly press conference on Monday. “The way I read it, they’re better than good. They probably have the best possibilities this year they’ve ever had in the history of the program. So, because of all the super seniors, everybody has returners coming back, we have returners coming back, but they have 2019 returners coming back.”
“This will be a huge challenge because really what’s most different about them, maybe, this year than, maybe, a lot of years in the past is the confidence. They are good, but they also are very confident and very disciplined, which makes those kinds of teams great. It’s not just that they have great talent, they’ve got a great football team. That will be the challenge. We’ll go down to Ames and see what happens.”
A lot has happened for Iowa State football in the time since that rain-soaked day two years ago. Any uneasiness the close call against the Panthers created was eased only slightly by the Cyclones finishing 2019 at 7-6 overall with a loss to Notre Dame in the Camping World Bowl.
The rest of it was relieved (and probably replaced with anxiety about something entirely different) during Iowa State’s 9-3 run through 2020 with a berth in the Big 12 title game and a win in the Fiesta Bowl.
All throughout, the cast of characters remained largely the same.
The only major difference is the emergence of Iowa State’s star tailback Breece Hall, who rushed 11 times for 47 yards while making his collegiate debut in the 2019 affair. Hall has since run the ball 454 times for 2,427 yards and 30 touchdowns and finished sixth in 2020 Heisman Trophy balloting.
“He reminds me of (former Panther and NFL running back) David Johnson for us back when he played,” Farley said. “When I say that, he’s a big, strong tailback. He’s got breakaway speed. He’s got the go to him. I’m watching him run away from Big 12 players just by getting the ball to the edges and running away from them. He doesn’t look like he’s going to do that but nobody’s catching him. Much like David Johnson, he didn’t look like he was going until nobody could catch him.”
“He has the gear to go the distance. He’s got the stop and go to get through the first level of players. You know what I like about him? I listen to him and I watch him and he’s humble, he’s sincere and for those players, you only hope good things happen for them. He seems like a really quality person. I think from my standpoint, he probably has more (to like) about him than (former Cyclone David) Montgomery that went to the (Chicago) Bears. A lot of the same qualities, but I think he has that top-end speed that makes him different.”
Farley, who notably did not name a starting quarterback for Saturday’s game, noting that the race was down to returning starter Will McElvain and Michigan State transfer Theo Day, holds a unique perspective on college football in our state as the longtime leader of the state’s third-biggest program.
And he’s held that position now for a long time.
So, it sticks out when you hear him explain what has allowed Matt Campbell to find success in Ames and why the two coaches have built a solid relationship while playing the biennial rivalry.
“I just know this about Matt Campbell, there’s a reason the program is good,” Farley said. “He’s built that culture. He has built the confidence in that team. He’s built it within the culture of Iowa. That’s what makes him different there because I think that the key to being successful in our state is fitting in our state. He has and is a very humble person as well.”
“I think from my standpoint, these games are important to him because this is his background. He came up through Division III and came up through the ranks and didn’t get a job just because of his last name or who he was as a player. He earned everything of why he’s there. I think he understands this game and the importance of it, whether, for him or our program, I think he understands the importance of this game overall to college football in the state of Iowa. In that regard, much like Coach (Kirk) Ferentz, what we all need to be very appreciative of in our state is that they fit our state. They take care of their team first, but they also do what’s best in regards to the entire state of football in the state of Iowa, which is very important to us. This game is a huge game for us, whether it is Iowa or Iowa State. These are games that we must have and we must play.”
While all the compliments of Iowa State and the team’s personnel are great, the underlying reality of this week is Farley has proven he knows how to beat Iowa State, having done it three times in 12 tries, including twice in the last six.
His team will not walk into Jack Trice Stadium scared on Saturday. They know damn well about the challenge that lies ahead.
“Just go down there and play,” Farley said. “Half the fun is leading up to the game, just driving through the atmosphere going up to the game. That alone will bring energy to it because it’s been a long time since we’ve seen it. Those are fun moments. Those are memorable things for the players. It raises your game. Now, you’ve got to play. You could make it a great day and battle like we have or it could be a long afternoon.”