Lamar players confident they belong in FCS playoff game
There aren’t many similarities between Lamar University’s football team and its first-round opponent in the FCS playoffs.
On paper, the Lamar Cardinals and Northern Iowa Panthers seem like polar opposites.
UNI has qualified for the FCS postseason in four of the last six seasons since the tournament expanded to 24 teams. Meanwhile, Lamar will make its first playoff appearance in school history on Saturday when the Cardinals travel to Cedar Falls, Iowa.
“As far as I can remember in the FCS, and I’ve been doing this for a long time, Northern Iowa has always been in that elite group ,” Lamar coach Mike Schultz said.
Some Lamar players, including leading rusher Myles Wanza, have never experienced a playoff game throughout their entire football career.
But despite being double-digit underdogs, according to most oddsmakers, Cardinals players say their six-straight wins prove they belong in the big game.
In the midst of perhaps the most surprising campaign in program history, Lamar will need another shock on Saturday to keep its season alive.
“We aren’t trying to prove anything to anyone,” senior defensive back Rodney Randle Jr. said. “With the way we ended the season, we earned the right to be where we are and play in this game. Now, we just need to go win it.”
A tradition of success isn’t the only difference between Lamar and UNI. The two teams have vastly different game plans, particularly on offense.
Northern Iowa’s attack utilizes a pro-style system, methodically moving the ball with a balance of run and pass plays.
Conversely, Lamar relies on an explosive running game that ranks 12th nationally, then tries to catch defenses off guard by mixing in deep pass attempts sporadically. Lamar has five players with more than 500 rushing yards this season.
“Sometimes, we don’t even know who’s running the ball back there,” senior offensive lineman Garrett Bowery said. “It’s fun to block for guys like that.”
UNI coach Mark Farley was largely unfamiliar with Lamar upon learning his team’s first round opponent. All he knew was Lamar beat McNeese State in the regular-season finale.
“That was basically a playoff game against McNeese,” Farley told reporters at a press conference earlier this week. “So in my head, that makes Lamar a really strong team just by saying that, because I know McNeese football.”
Farley has since seen the tape on Lamar, one that shows the Cardinals’ heavy run tendencies. Using its ran-pass option formation on most plays, Lamar has 571 rushing attempts compared with only 246 passes this season.
Defensively, UNI ranks third in a daunting Missouri Valley Conference, thanks in large part to a physically dominating front seven. That defense is a big reason why UNI (6-5, 5-3) stayed in playoff contention despite playing the toughest schedule of all 125 FCS teams this season.
Lamar hopes to counteract that physical superiority by getting the ball to its playmakers in open space.
“They’ve got some big boys…some pretty swole guys,” Wanza said. “We’ve got to bring our speed and use that to match up with their physicality.”
Although temperatures will likely dip into the 30s in Ceder Falls on Saturday afternoon, players will play inside the UNI-Dome.
The 16,000-seat stadium is completely enclosed with an artificial turf field, and presents an unfamiliar environment for many Lamar players.
Most of the Cardinals have never played in a domed stadium. The closest thing to it came when Lamar practiced indoors at Port Neches-Groves High School after Tropical Storm Harvey last season.
Schultz said the team will arrive at the UNI-Dome a few hours earlier than usual to get a feel for the indoor facility.
Thanksgiving day off
Lamar has never played a game this late in the year, presenting a weird scenario with Thanksgiving coming days before arguably the biggest contest in Cardinals football history.
After a few morning meetings and short practice, Schultz gave his players the day off on Thursday to celebrate the holiday as they chose.
Some players visited the homes of local teammates, while others made short drives back home to surrounding cities.
Wanza, a Houston native, made a surprise trip home to celebrate with his family.
“They thought I was practicing up here (at Lamar) all day, so I wanted to shock them,” Wanza said of the trip home.
Players will return to the team complex Friday morning for meetings and a quick walk through before departing with a fan sendoff at 12:30 p.m.