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Kibby, UNI ready for FCS playoff opener

CEDAR FALLS — Despite not earning a national seed, Northern Iowa will get the opportunity to play at home once more this season.

The Panthers, ranked sixth in the final FCS poll, host San Diego in a first round playoff matchup Saturday inside the UNI-Dome. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m.

Northern Iowa (8-4 overall) finished second in the Missouri Valley Conference this past season behind only top-ranked, No. 1 seed and two-time defending national champion North Dakota State.

“I know a lot of our guys feel like we should have received a first round bye, but ultimately, that’s not up to us,” said former Bishop Garrigan all-stater and UNI junior Zac Kibby. “We are excited and grateful to be one of 24 teams still playing.”

One of the two losses suffered by the Panthers in the last two months came at North Dakota State, with the other being a 38-7 defeat earlier this month at South Dakota State. The winner between UNI and San Diego (9-2) heads to play South Dakota State next Saturday in the second round.

The Toreros won the Pioneer League, which includes Drake, going a perfect 9-0. Their only two losses came outside the conference.

“San Diego and their conference is often overlooked by many, however, after watching film, we quickly learned that they will be no push-over,” Kibby said. “Offensively, they are very disciplined and very technically sound. I believe that we are physically a much better team, but you can definitely tell that their guys are grinders and play hard.

“They won’t be intimidated by us and they will come to play.”

San Diego’s quarterback is former Johnston standout Reid Sinnett, as he directs an offense averaging almost 500 yards per game and just under 42 points.

Like the Toreros, UNI features an Iowa at quarterback in former Des Moines Lincoln all-stater Will McElvain. The redshirt freshman has thrown for 2,354 yards and 20 touchdowns this year.

Trevor Allen leads the team with 611 yards on the ground and 11 scores, with Isaiah Weston the top target for McElvain with 982 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Northern Iowa’s depth chart features a handful of former area and Iowa Central players. Manson Northwest Webster grad and ex-Triton Tim Butcher is a starter at defensive tackle, former Triton Joe Friedrich is the long snapper, with former Iowa Central standouts Spencer Cuvelier, Jackson Martens and Roosevelt Lawrence all listed as backups on defense.

Kibby is averaging just under 40 yards per punt on 45 kicks, including a long of 62. Nine of those punts have been downed inside the 20 and six are of at least 50 yards.

Cuvelier has 55 total tackles in eight games, Lawrence has 53 stops, Butcher 28 and Kibby 10 tackles.

“It has been tough to not look ahead to South Dakota State as all of us desperately want a rematch,” Kibby said. “(Saturday) will be a great game and we have had a great week of prep. San Diego is going to get a team that is playing with a chip on our shoulder, especially after not receiving a first round bye.

“We are out to prove ourselves to everyone.”

The game will be available on ESPN3 and Panther Radio Network.