Mark Farley doesn’t have a pat speech for moments like this, but the Northern Iowa football coach can’t help but touch on some familiar talking points this week.
When the Panthers open the season Saturday against the University of Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium, it will mark the 13th time under Farley that they’ve jumped up a weight class to measure themselves.
As was the case when Northern Iowa prepared for other Football Bowl Subdivision opponents — including Ball State, BYU, Iowa, Iowa State and Oklahoma State — Farley will talk about expectations and preparation.
“Our expectations never change,” he said. “We really don’t look at names of teams of who we play even though this one’s hard to look past.
“Ultimately our talks are very similar in the fact that whether you’re playing in Camp Randall or playing for our (Missouri Valley Conference) championship or playing in the (NCAA) playoffs: You have to play consistently for four quarters.
“Our message — week in and week out, from the day you walk in the door until the day you’ve graduated — is how you prepare and when these moments come along you’ve put the time in, so you have the confidence to step on the field.”
With seven starters back on offense, five on defense and both kicking specialists, the Panthers can draw confidence from last season, when they won their seventh league title under Farley and finished 10-3 overall.
But there are enough holes — quarterback and linebacker stand out — and enough youth that Farley is leery of the unknown heading into Saturday’s game against the 12th-ranked Badgers.
“How will (we) perform in the opener without any warmup game or anything like that to deal with?” he said of his players. “This is it. We have to be able to perform because you’re dealing with a top-five team in the country.
“Wisconsin is not a finesse team. They’re a power team. It kind of magnifies the fact, ‘Can you hold up in a power game and, on top of that, Wisconsin’s power game?’ ”
Farley cautions against using the 2009 opener as a reference point. Under similar circumstances — facing a ranked Big Ten team on the road — the Panthers endured a 17-16 loss to Iowa when they had two field goal attempts blocked in the final seconds.
“That team had more game experience,” Farley said. “That was a very good team.”
Still, Northern Iowa is a force to be reckoned with based in part on its No. 7 ranking in the Football Championship Subdivision preseason coaches’ poll. It has qualified for the NCAA playoffs seven times under Farley — including an appearance in the title game in 2005 — and is viewed as a national title contender in 2012 even though a daunting September awaits.
In addition to facing UW, the Panthers play another FBS opponent in Iowa and host defending FCS national champion North Dakota State.
At the outset, Farley — who is 99-40 during his tenure in Cedar Falls — will entrust his offense to redshirt freshman quarterback Sawyer Kollmorgen. His debut will be supported in part by a stable of veteran wide receivers and two running backs — fifth-year senior Carlos Anderson and redshirt sophomore David Johnson — who each had multiple 100-yard rushing games last season.
Kollmorgen is getting the start in part because redshirt sophomore and top returnee Jared Lanpher is sidelined with a sports hernia.
“We’re going to see what happens with Sawyer when the lights come on,” Farley said.
The only two Wisconsinites on the Northern Iowa roster — fifth-year senior offensive tackle Misha Danilov from Middleton and redshirt freshman tight end Sam Rohr from Brookfield — are expected to start.
Farley doesn’t anticipate anything out of the ordinary from the Badgers even though six new assistants — including offensive coordinator Matt Canada — have been added to the mix.
“I’d assume they’ll put the big men up front at the line of scrimmage and knock off the football like they do every Big Ten team,” he said. “I don’t expect them to change that.
“If I (had) one of the best offenses in the country, with the players that Wisconsin has, I doubt I’d veer too far from what got me to where I’m at.”
In other words, Farley expects a healthy dose of senior All-American tailback Montee Ball and very little fluff.
“You’ve got one of the best backs in the country and one of the best offensive lines,” he said. “You’ve got one of the best atmospheres. You weigh all those things together (and) you better put an extra buckle on your chinstrap.”