PROVO — Twice in the last 11 years, Northern Iowa has faced nationally ranked Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I) opponents.

The results? UNI was drubbed by No. 21 Iowa, 66-0, in 1997. Eight years later, the Panthers dropped a 45-21 decision to the No. 22 Hawkeyes. UNI, which hails from the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA), is saddled with another large challenge on Saturday — traveling to No. 16 BYU.

The Cougars are not only the highest-ranked FBS team the Panthers have played, but coach Mark Farley calls BYU "the best team we've played."

"Probably why I'm labeling them the best is because of their aspirations going into the season," said Farley. "I mean, they're coming off 11-2 seasons two years in a row."

Farley also refers to Cougars quarterback Max Hall as a "Heisman-type candidate."

All that aside, UNI is looking forward to the challenge. "If we can play to the level we're capable of playing," Farley said, "this will be a good football game."

"We're not going out there to get experience," Panthers defensive end James Ruffin told the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. "We're going down there to win."

Saturday's showdown carries additional historical significance for UNI: it marks the program's 1,000th game. The Panthers are 584-368-47 since the start of football at the school in 1895. UNI owns an all-time record of 20-60-5 against FBS foes, including a 9-16 mark since 1985. A year ago, the Panthers earned a 24-13 victory on the road against Iowa State of the Big 12.

Meanwhile, BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall has been effusive in his praise of the UNI program, which is ranked No. 3 in the FCS preseason poll and posted a 12-1 record last season.

"Northern Iowa is a team that knows how to win. They expect to win," Mendenhall said. "They're very well coached. Coach Farley has done a lot of things there that I could certainly learn from in establishing consistency over time, which is the ultimate goal. I don't think you'll see much difference between Northern Iowa and some of the better teams in our league." ... We think this is a very good opponent."

UNI lost quarterback Eric Sanders, a three-year starter, to graduation, as well as four of its five starting offensive linemen. Stepping into Sanders' spot is 6-foot-2, 230-pound sophomore Pat Grace, a QB in a fullback's body. The strong-armed Grace, who will be making his first collegiate start, has completed 7-of-8 passes in his career as Sanders' backup, while rushing 15 times for 90 yards. The Cougars expect Grace to try to make plays with his legs.

"He's a big guy. You do have to bring your big-boy pads," said linebacker David Nixon. "You don't want to get run over by him."

"He has an option background," Mendenhall said. "We expect him to be a good athlete, an excellent runner. Coaches have said he could play fullback and linebacker as well. Maybe he's one of those quarterbacks that's not afraid to run with the ball. He might run over you. A lot remains to be seen. That's probably our biggest question mark — what his capabilities are."

Farley said Grace's running ability changes UNI's offensive look.

"I think there's no question we will open up the playbook in the fact that Pat wants to run," he said. "Pat's a very big man with a great arm. The toughest thing to defend is a quarterback who wants to run."

The Panthers return a standout running back in Corey Lewis, a senior who rushed for a UNI single-season record 1,513 yards last season. "He's a very quick running back. He has great moves and great vision of the field. He'll cut it back against you, he'll beat you to the outside," Nixon said. "He has a lot of capabilities that we're going to have to prepare for.

"He is probably the best running back we'll face this year. We understand he's a great athlete, and any time you have a great athlete on the field like that, you can expect good plays to come from him. Therefore, we're going to have to play some pretty tough defense out there."


E-mail: jeffc@desnews.com