CEDAR FALLS — It’s been a meat grinder of a schedule. That’s appropriate because the Northern Iowa Panthers seem to be just that: meat.
At the very least, Saturday night’s 33-21 loss to top-ranked North Dakota State at the UNI-Dome leaves UNI no margin of error if it wants to make the FCS playoffs. That’s zero, zip, zilch, nada.
And even if the Panthers win their last six games, there are no guarantees. That’s zero, zip, zilch, nada.
“It’s crunch time now,” said Northern Iowa quarterback Sawyer Kollmorgen. “We have to win every single game. We have to win big, if we want a shot at the playoffs.”
First comes a bye week at the absolute best time because this is a beaten-up football team physically and mentally. Really, how could you blame UNI (1-4, 0-2 Missouri Valley Conference) for that?
There were money games against Big Ten foes Wisconsin and Iowa two of the first three weeks. The MVC schedule started with a last-minute road loss last week at No. 3 Youngstown State, and then there was Saturday.
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"We're learning the hard way, and we're learning against very good football teams," said UNI Coach Mark Farley.
The Panthers knew they’d have to play a mostly flawless game to knock off the defending FCS champions Saturday. Three turnovers that were converted into 17 North Dakota State points showed UNI was far from flawless.
Kollmorgen fumbled on a sack late in the first half that led to the second of four Adam Keller field goals. He was intercepted late in the third and sacked on a fourth-down play near midfield in a 30-14 game halfway through the fourth that began emptying out the Dome quickly.
That’s with the exception of the considerable number of green and gold-clad fans who made the trip southeast and whooped it up to the end.
“It was a really big win for our program,” said North Dakota State Coach Craig Bohl. “We’ve had a really hard time winning in Cedar Falls. They have a great program, so for us to come in here and get a win like this, decisively, we’re certainly very pleased.”
North Dakota State (4-0, 1-0 Missouri Valley Conference), which won at FBS member Colorado State three weeks ago, has a strong running game and splendid quarterback in junior Brock Jensen, and UNI had no answers defensively for either. Running back John Crockett ran for 122 yards and two touchdowns, part of a 176-yard rushing night for the Bison.
Jensen completed 22 of 31 passes for 243 yards and a touchdown and was continually money on third down with assorted throws and runs. NDSU converted six of 13 there.
“We’ve got to get the ball back to the offense,” said UNI safety Garrett Scott. “It seemed like they converted every third down. We have a lot to clean up.”
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Farley thought the decisive moment in the game came late in the first half when Varmah Sonie fielded a punt inside his own 10 and fumbled it away. That led to a NDSU touchdown and eventual 13-7 halftime lead.
The Bison took the second-half kickoff and drove for a touchdown that created separation. Crockett had a 43-yard run in the 75-yard drive, finishing it off with a 6-yard TD run.
"We had a chance there to take their hearts out there," Crockett said. "Us offensive guys, we talked about that going out there. We were very persistent."
“(Sonie's fumble) was the difference in the football game,” Farley said. “We stopped them, probably shouldn’t have fielded the punt. We had all the momentum, (right) before halftime. That was a huge error, a huge error. An unacceptable error.”
Kollmorgen completed 18 of 28 throws for 213 yards and two touchdowns, including a 20-yarder in the closing seconds that provided the final margin. Receiver Brett LeMaster was taken out of the game in the second quarter when he took a vicious double hit from two NDSU defensive backs while trying to catch a pass over the middle in the end zone.
LeMaster appeared to be briefly knocked unconscious. Kind of represents his team at the moment.
"It's football," Farley said. "We have to find a way. We're growing up fast, growing up hard. But in the end, it'll pay off. We'll make it pay off."
Here are game statistics: