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Panthers ready for FCS quarterfinals

HARRISONBURG, Va. — In two playoff victories, No. 6 Northern Iowa has allowed a total of 13 points.

The Panthers know they are going to be put to the test here Friday night when they face second-ranked James Madison in the FCS quarterfinals.

Kickoff is set for 6 p.m. and the game will be broadcast live on ESPN2 from Bridgeforth Stadium.

Northern Iowa (10-4 overall) reached this point with a 17-3 triumph over San Diego inside the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls and a 13-10 triumph over No. 10 South Dakota State last week on the road.

For Zac Kibby — a former Bishop Garrigan all-stater — not only was the victory over the Jackrabbits a matter of revenge from a regular season defeat, it helped to solidify the bond of the team going forward.

“Over the past few seasons, it’s been a popular trend for us to win our first playoff game and then fall in the second round,” Kibby said. “To get over that hump and into the quarterfinals has brought us closer as a team. We know we have something good going and we are capable of being great.

“(The win over SDSU) was fun for everyone and added more excitement and energy to the team. Guys are locked in and we are in it for the long run. We aren’t ready to be done yet.”

Kibby, a redshirt junior, is averaging 39 yards per punt this year while also being a member of the defense that has allowed 10-or-less points in three straight games and in six consecutive wins.

Northern Iowa was tested during the regular season, facing five ranked FCS teams and an Iowa State squad that was rated at that time in FBS. The Panthers scored wins over Youngstown State and Illinois State.

That experience will be key against a James Madison (12-1) club that has been on an equally impressive roll. The lone loss for the Dukes came in the opener vs. West Virginia, 20-13.

On the year, James Madison has scored 40-plus points eight times, surpassing the 50-point mark in its last two, including a 66-21 playoff win vs. No. 14 Monmouth last week.

“The opportunity to play in the quarterfinals is incredible,” said linebacker Spencer Cuvelier, a former Iowa Central standout. “I think this is one of the biggest stages most players on our team have played on, so the team energy is high. Coaches have been preaching to stay poised throughout these playoffs and that’s exactly what our focus will be.

“In my opinion, our defense is very well-coached. I think there is some tremendous athletes in the secondary and really all over the field. I think our defensive line is fantastic; they are always hurrying the quarterback and inverting the line of scrimmage. They define gaps and make linebacker reads very simple.”

Cuvelier, a redshirt sophomore, has made 67 tackles with 3.5 stops for loss on the year. He has recorded double-digit tackles in three games and had eight last week vs. South Dakota State.

The Dukes average 44 points and 482 yards per game. Former Pittsburgh quarterback Ben DiNucci has thrown for 2,825 yards with 24 touchdowns and just four interceptions. Brandon Polk, a Penn State transfer, is his top receiver, having caught 61 passes for 1,062 yards and 10 TDs.

“James Madison is a very good football team,” Kibby said. “Watching film on them, they have talent all over the field and they are very well coached. They have a lot of FBS transfers on their roster. They are a very good football team, but so are we.

“It’s not often you get to play on ESPN2 in a night games, so we are very excited for this opportunity. Guys will be fired up, that’s for sure.”

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