CEDAR FALLS — It is sink or swim time for the Northern Iowa football team.
Sitting at 2-3 overall, 1-1 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, the Panthers have time to right ship and make a push for the FCS Playoffs.
It begins Saturday at No. 24 South Dakota in a 6 p.m. kickoff.
The cloud that is looming over UNI is how much of a hangover it has following a 56-31 loss to No. 1 North Dakota State home, a game the Panthers put a lot of heart and soul into winning.
"You learn from the previous game and move onto the next one," UNI head coach Mark Farley said. "Our biggest challenge is our week of prep. That is probably our biggest challenge right now.
"We just got to get ready this week coming off that game to go back out and play a good team."
The Panthers, themselves, understand that one, it could've played better against NDSU, and two, this team is just starting to realize they are capable of playing at higher and higher levels.
"Taking a loss like that is never a good thing," junior receiver Jaylin James said. "After talking to coach Farley and the coaches, I think we learned is how much our team is capable of doing. We have a lot of opportunities to become a great team. I think that is one thing we can take away."
The Coyotes (3-2, 2-0) have shown flashes of greatness starting the year with a near upset of Kansas State, and then a frustrating loss at Weber State, which has been followed by come-from-behind victories over Southern Illinois and Missouri State, two teams picked to finish eighth and ninth in a preseason MVFC poll.
"Offensively, they're still always strong," Farley said. "They always have a good plan, and they always play well at home. They have a new defensive coordinator, so they're doing some new things on defense. But they're very similar as far as what they're doing the last couple years offensively. They seem to be scoring a lot of points on everybody they play.
"That's the things that have stood out so far as I've watched the tape."
A year after graduating prolific Chris Streveler, the Coyotes have not had a drop off in quarterback play with Council Bluffs native Austin Simmons running the show.
Simmons has thrown for 1,599 yards and 10 scores, while he's shown the ability to run as well. If you don't count the negative yardage he has lost because of sacks, he'd have 200 rushing yards.
USD's passing offense ranks second in the Valley at 319.8 yards per game, it is fourth in total offense at 432.8. Simmons leads the MVFC in total offense (352.2), and has passed for more than 330 yards in three of his five starts this season.
"Streveler was so fast," Farley said. "Simmons can run, very athletic, but the difference, I don't know if there are many players like (Streveler). In our world he was Tirrell Rennie fast.
"Simmons can run and throw it, if not (throw) a little better."
UNI will also have to contend with a Coyote run game that is much better inside the Dakota Dome than it is on the road. At home, USD averages 174 yards rushing per game, while on the road it has managed just 72.
The Panthers will have to show much more fight in defending the run game than was it was able to muster against NDSU.
"We didn't get off the blocks we needed to get off, and we didn't make tackles in space coming off the secondary," Farley said.
Defensively, the Coyotes have several playmakers starting with safety Andrew Gray who has won back-to-back MVFC Defensive Player of the Week honors. He forced three turnovers in USD's win over Missouri State last Saturday.
Up front, defensive linemen Darin Greenfield was a preseason all-American and has already recorded 6 1/2 tackles for loss, including three sacks.
Teams have, however, found ways to move the ball on the Coyotes who are given up 423 yards per game, including 527 to Southern Illinois and 478 to Missouri State.
Where USD has been good defensively is it has forced 12 turnovers and been stingy in the red-zone where teams have produced points on just 16 of 23 trips inside the Coyote 20. That is one area, UNI has excelled at as the Panthers are 18 of 18 (12 touchdowns and six field goals) on trips into the red zone.