Who will have hot hand in playoffs?

Eli Dunne has bounced back for Northern Iowa after being benched in the Sept. 1 opener, a 26-23 loss to Montana. UC Davis mauled Montana 49-21 on Oct. 27.

Mark Farley chuckled when informed in a phone interview Wednesday afternoon that the current temperature in Davis was 62. The Northern Iowa football coach got the last laugh by replying  “It’s 72 in the dome.”

Farley’s Panthers will not have the advantage of playing in the climate-controlled comfort of the UNI Dome on Saturday, however. At least they will be able to go outside to practice in Aggie Stadium on Friday as they prepare to face UC Davis in the FCS playoffs. And even with a slight chance of rain, Davis will be far more hospitable than the subfreezing temperatures outdoors in Cedar Rapids.

Jake Maier has thrown for 3,387 yards and 31 touchdowns as a junior for UC Davis.

Farley is not the meteorologist, but he believes there will be a fair amount of heat as soon as the game kicks off at 4 p.m. He expects the outcome will be decided by which quarterback has the hot hand. Although Farley gushed over UC Davis junior Jake Maier,  the Offensive Player of the Year in the Big Sky Conference, he is confident senior Eli Dunne will rise to the occasion.

“Their quarterback is a winner,” Farley said of Maier. “He seems to make plays at the most critical times. He brings the energy to that football team from what I see. The guy who makes their whole thing turn is their quarterback.”

Maier has turned his right arm loose since arriving at UC Davis in 2017.  He made a name for himself in 2016 at Long Beach City College, where he threw for 3,689 yards and 38 touchdowns after wasting 2015 as a redshirt in Sacred Heart University in Connecticut. Maier wasted no time last year in winning a starting job with the Aggies and was honored as the Big Sky Newcomer of the Year after passing for 3,669 yards and 26 touchdowns.

This season has been more of the same for Maier, who has thrown for 3,387 yards and 31 touchdowns, but UC Davis is breaking new ground like a rototiller. The Aggies shared the Big Sky championship and are in the FCS playoffs for the first time in 12 years as a Division I program. Whenever this season ends, the 2018 edition of the Aggies might well stake a claim as the best team in the program’s 100-year history.

Dunne’s career at Northern Iowa has been far more conventional. He redshirted in 2014, played in four games as a backup in 2015, started four games in 2016 and then became the full-time starter as a junior in 2017. Just when it seemed Dunne had earned job security, he was benched at halftime of the 2018 opener at Montana with Northern Iowa trailing 26-0. Farley had no choice but to go with senior Colton Howell after Dunne completed just five of 20 passes for 27 yards in the first half of what turned into a 26-23 loss.

The tables turned the following week at Iowa when Howell started and struggled. Dunne got the call in the second half with the Panthers trailing 21-0 and threw two touchdown passes in the 38-14 loss.  Those 14 points were not the only reason Farley decided to go back to Dunne as the starter. Farley was impressed with how Dunne handled his benching by learning not to takes tarting for granted.

“(Dunne) took it the way you would want him to take it,” Farley said. “He had to earn his position back. He had to turn to himself to fix what was wrong. It’s not how old you are, how many games you’ve started and what you did last week. You’ve got to be productive on Saturday.”

Montana is the one common opponent for UC Davis and Northern Iowa in 2018. Like the Panthers, the Aggies trailed by double digits at halftime against the Grizzlies. Unlike Dunne, Maier turned it loose in the second half  by throwing for three touchdowns and running for one as UC Davis rallied for a 49-21 victory.

It would be safe to say Farley knows that all too well.

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