116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
AMES — Iowa State’s highest preseason ranking — No. 7 in the AP Top 25 — and a sellout crowd of 61,500 at Jack-Trice Stadium didn’t intimidate FCS No. 21 Northern Iowa Saturday in a narrow 16-10 loss.
Trailing by six with 6:18 to play, UNI began what could have been an earth-shattering, game-winning drive against the nation’s seventh-ranked team. Instead, after gaining a first down, quarterback Will McElvain’s deep pass attempt for Quan Hampton on third-and-12 sailed wide and was intercepted by Datrone Young.
Close, but no cigar, again, for the Panthers.
“I’m disappointed we lost,” UNI Coach Mark Farley said. “We came here to win the football game and we were in position to do so. That’s as simple as I can say it.
“We had to finish two drives at the end. We positioned ourselves where we needed to be and we didn’t make those two drives. So, that’s what we’ll take with us and that’s where we need to make improvements.”
Despite missing out on the upset, this in-state rivalry game felt eerily similar to UNI’s triple-overtime loss in 2019, as the Panthers once again brought the anxiety to Ames.
McElvain, who turned Cyclones fans hair gray in 2019, got his Jack Trice Stadium mojo turned back on with a 52-yard touchdown pass to Hampton for the game’s first score late in the first quarter.
Before he delivered Cyclones fans that first big helping of anxiety, he eluded a sack on third-and-11 at UNI’s own 12 and completed a pass to Deion McShane for 38 yards just before falling to the ground. And just like that, “McElvain Magic” was back, and a sellout crowd sounded like anything but.
“I told (McElvain) afterwards, go win a championship,” Iowa State Coach Matt Campbell said. “He’s got that kind of moxie about him that he’s always going to put his team in a position to make a big play just because he is. He’s elusive, and like I said, man, he’s in the clasp of (Iowa State defensive end) Will McDonald and he gets out on that third-down play, gets the first down and then a couple of plays later throws a slant for a touchdown. So, I’m a big Will McElvain fan. I think he’s a great player.”
Iowa State mustered an answer, but had to grind 59 yards in 14 plays as UNI’s defense lived up to the hype and most notably held Heisman Trophy candidate Breece Hall to 69 yards on 23 carries.
“(The defense) played really hard,” Farley said. “The defense, because of the opponent and the type of players they have, really stood up to the challenge and did what I expected them to.”
Like they did in 2019, the Panthers refused to go away, much less take a 30-plus point beating that sportsbooks across the country predicted.
“When you come to UNI, yeah, you’ve got to overcome odds,” Farley said. “But you can build a great football team here. I heard we had a 2-percent chance to win, we’re a 34-point (underdog). That’s noise to me. We should have won this football game. Hands down.”
UNI’s recipe for competing — which will undoubtedly stir up conversations among national talking heads about Iowa State being overrated — included just enough positive runs and ultimately too few big plays on offense.
Looking forward, though, the Panthers' performance against a top-shelf FBS opponent indicates that offensive coordinator Shawn Watson has McElvain and the offense better positioned for success this season and their defense — that returned all 11 starters — proved it’s still a top-five unit in the FCS.
Just how much better UNI’s offense is will come into much clearer focus next week when it travels to Sacramento State, which was picked fifth in the Big Sky preseason poll.