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CEDAR FALLS — The numbers don’t add up, don’t make any sense.
But in the game of football, missed opportunities equal one thing — a loss.
Third-ranked Northern Iowa dominated Saturday night’s FCS Top 25 showdown statistically, but lost in the only number that matters, the final score — 20-14 to No. 14 Montana before 12,346 fans at the UNI-Dome.
“We had some huge opportunities to score,” UNI Coach Mark Farley said. “Frustration and disappointment go together.”
For the record, UNI had 20 first downs to Montana’s 12. The Panthers totaled 351 yards of offense to the Grizzlies’ 206. UNI held the ball more than six minutes longer.
“When you play the No. 3 team in the country on the road, a team coming off a win over a Big 12 team, you find any way to get the ‘W,’” Montana Coach Bob Stitt said. “You don’t care how you get it done.”
The Grizzlies came out quick, scoring on their first possession on a 34-yard pass from Brady Gustafson to Josh Horner. It was 10-0 with 8:30 left in the first quarter after Tim Semenza kicked a 34-yard field goal.
After losing a fumble on their next possession, the Panthers seemed to wake up. The defense held Montana to its first three-and-out and the offense marched 63 yards in nine plays to pull within 10-7 on a one-yard run by Tyvis Smith. The defense held again and the Panthers marched down to the Montana 1 at the end of the first quarter. But UNI failed on third-and-one and fourth-and-one.
“That was a killer,” Farley said.
The Panther defense held again and UNI marched right back down into Grizzlie territory, but Austin Errthum missed a 34-yard field goal that would have tied the game.
The real killer came two possessions later when Montana’s Jerry Louis-McGee returned a punt for a touchdown, zigging, zagging and spinning for 81 yards.
“It was the punt return, in the end, that got us,” Farley said.
Louis-McGee said he doesn’t know how it happened.
“The dude’s unreal,” Gustafson said. “He’s special.”
Semenza added a 35-yard field goal in the second quarter to make it 20-7 just before halftime. And that’s the way it stayed until the fourth quarter.
Montana managed just three first downs in the second half and 70 yards of offense. But UNI couldn’t capitalize time and time again. Drives stalled at the Montana 38, 40 and 17 before Aaron Bailey and Daurice Fountain finally connected on a 28-yard touchdown. UNI had two more shots at the win, but came up empty.
“We never felt like we were out of it,” said Fountain, who caught nine passes for 97 yards. “We just came out flat.”
Smith rushed for 130 yards for the Panthers and defensive end Karter Schult had 10 tackles, tying a school record with 5.5 for loss.
“We had enough shots but, in the end, we made too many mistakes,” Farley said.
UNI travels to sixth-ranked Eastern Washington next week, a team that lost in overtime to top-ranked North Dakota State.
“Now we have to go find a way to win on the road,” Farley said.
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