116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
After back-to-back error-ridden losses, No. 20 Northern Iowa conjured its best 60-minute performance of the season Saturday afternoon at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium, upsetting No. 6 South Dakota State, 26-17.
After deferring and beginning on defense, UNI (4-3, 2-2) made the game’s first big play and never looked back.
Safety Korby Sander forced a Chris Oladokun fumble during a sack in Jackrabbits territory and linebacker Bryce Flater scooped the loose ball and returned it 11 yards to the SDSU 14. Six plays later, Bradrick Shaw punched in a 1-yard touchdown for an early 7-0 lead.
“It was great football, but it was great men that really put their heart into that one,” UNI coach Mark Farley said. “That was a big win.”
SDSU (5-2, 2-2) answered after its turnover. In six plays the Jackrabbits went 80 yards as Oladokun completed three passes, including a 12-yard touchdown to Jadon Janke.
Matthew Cook — who converted all four of his field goals — put the Panthers back in front with a 55-yard kick as helpful wind emboldened Farley and his staff to let the sophomore placekicker attempt the kick. Cook’s career-long was exceptionally clutch, as it came after quarterback Theo Day took a sack for a 17-yard loss, seemingly putting the Panthers out of field goal range.
“I planned to punt it,” Farley said. “When (SDSU) called the timeout it gave me time to reconsider, basically, what was going on. With the wind and the hash that we were on it appeared to me to be right, but I’m going to give full credit to (Cook) because before the game even started, he comes up to me and tells me about what the wind issue is on both ends and he had told me on that end he could get more leg.”
After another SDSU counterpunch — a 34-yard field goal by Cole Frahm — UNI’s passing game became the catalyst for a five-play, 75-yard drive capped by a 40-yard touchdown pass from Day to Isaiah Weston.
A 27-yard field goal by Cook and turnover on downs by the Jackrabbits — courtesy Bryce Flater’s run-stopping tackle — gave the Panthers a 20-10 advantage at halftime.
Cook continued his career day in the second half, extending the Panthers’ lead to 13 with a 46-yard field goal after a 38-yard pass from Day — who finished 11-of-21 with 232 yards — to freshman Tysen Kershaw.
Ben Dinkel’s 63-yard punt got SDSU to the UNI 2-yard line and set up the Jackrabbits’ second touchdown of the game as Pierre Strong Jr.’s 9-yard touchdown run made it 23-17.
As UNI’s defense continued its dominance, a comeback-stopping play from Day and Weston followed. On second-and-10, Day found Weston downfield for a 40-yard completion that led to Cook’s fourth and final field goal, a 51-yard connection.
“I actually think that catch probably put us through the second half,” Farley said. “After that catch the communication was, ‘man, everybody’s putting it on the line.’ He’s putting everything on the line to win and we all were at that time.”
Caden Houghtelling and Devin Rice’s sacks late in the fourth quarter solidified the upset win. Both takedowns of Oladokun stalled Jackrabbits drives to draw within two and Rice’s led to a missed 47-yard field goal by Frahm.
Strong, the FCS leading rusher, was limited to 53 yards on 14 carries while Oladokun completed 45 percent of his 53 pass attempts.
“Stopping the run is what we wanted to do. We really did. I thought our front seven did a tremendous job,” Farley said. “Our coverage was just running to the ball. Great effort by all of them.”
UNI hosts No. 4 Southern Illinois (6-1, 4-0) next Saturday. Kickoff is at 4 p.m. (ESPN+).