By Rob Todor
YSU’s opponent on Saturday will start a redshirt freshman.
One person who’s not going to lend any sympathy to Youngstown State football coach Jon Heacock is his counterpart at Northern Iowa, Mark Farley.
The Panthers, who come to Stambaugh Stadium on Saturday for a Missouri Valley Football Conference game, will start an untested redshirt freshman at quarterback.
Pat Grace, who’s thrown for over 1,100 yards in his first seven games as a starter, suffered a knee injury in UNI’s 23-13 win over North Dakota State last weekend and won’t play against the Penguins.
He’ll be replaced by Zach Davis, a second-year player who has attempted just seven passes in his college career.
The new quarterback shouldn’t change UNI’s plan of attack, though, said Farley.
Even taking away Grace’s 78 rushing attempts this season, the Panthers still run about 61 percent of the time anyway.
The challenge for Davis: manage the game and don’t lose the ball.
“We won’t change a thing,” Farley said. “We built our offense and recruited quarterbacks for the system. We’ll continue to do what we’re doing. Hopefully we’ll perform at the same level.”
Davis was a high school phenom in Iowa, throwing for more than 3,800 yards and 40 touchdowns. He was named Class 3A (similar to Ohio’s Division II) all-state as a junior and senior.
The Panthers have hung their hat on their defense this season, regardless of who’s taking the snaps.
The Panthers are ranked No. 2 in the MVFC in scoring defense and rushing defense, and Heacock called UNI defensive end James Ruffin among the best he’s ever coached against at YSU. He’s a returning all-conference performer and leads the MVFC in sacks and is second in tackles for loss.
“They have probably as good of a defense as they’ve ever had there,” Heacock said. “Their linebacker group is very talented and they have three or four seniors in the secondary.”
The Panthers will give up some yards — opponents have averaged over 365 yards per game — but they force mistakes. UNI’s plus-1.29 in turnover margin is ninth-best in the FCS.
UNI will count on senior running back Corey Lewis to carry the brunt of the offensive load.
The 6-foot, 197-pound senior returned to the lineup last week after limited duty the previous two games with an injured ankle.
He rushed 13 times and gained 64 yards against NDSU, and leads the Panthers with 575 yards for the season.
UNI also wants to get the ball to receiver Johnny Gray. The 5-9, 185 senior hasn’t displayed the explosiveness that earned him all-conference and All-American honors a year ago but he’s still a dangerous threat.
He averages 14.1 yards per reception, 9.1 yards per punt return and 18.8 yards per kickoff return.
“Their special teams were outstanding last week,” Heacock said. “Very sound and really made a huge difference.”
True freshman Jarred Herring was named the MVFC special teams player of the week. He returned four kickoffs for 150 yards and two of them led to UNI scores.
Farley, who’s never lost to Youngstown State in seven meetings, admits he’s a little lost in preparing for Saturday’s game, given all the injuries suffered by the Penguins and the uncertainty when it comes to just who’s going to start.
“We’ve spent the last 24 hours trying to get an understanding of what we think they’ll do against us,” said Farley, “because they’ve changed the plan so much over the last four or five games.
“We’re gonna go into this one with a lot of uncertainty, yet I think we’re to a stage with our team that we can put our plan in and hopefully adapt it as the game unfolds.”