CEDAR FALLS — With a trip to the FCS playoffs on the line and backup quarterback Colton Howell making the start for an injured Eli Dunne, Northern Iowa made easy work of Indiana State in its regular-season finale, 41-3.
The Sycamores (0-11, 0-8) were the first to grace the scoreboard. A five-play, 48-yard drive highlighted by a 42-yard completion from Cade Sparks to LeMonte Booker set up a 48-yard field goal for Jerry Nunez. It was one of only a few plays that got away from UNI’s defense, which allowed just 247 total yards.
“Just pleased with the last six or seven weeks, whatever it’s been,” UNI head coach Mark Farley said. “This game was hard, just because you didn’t want to drop the ball on the last one after what you’ve done for the last month or so. Defense finally got in rhythm after that first drive and played good again.”
After Nunez’s long field goal, it was all Panthers as they went on to score five times unanswered in the first half and seven times unanswered to finish the game.
UNI took a 27-3 lead into the break. Two of its first-half scores came with short fields after interceptions by Xavior Williams and Nikholi Jaghai. Jaghai started in place of an injured A.J. Allen for the second consecutive week. Williams’ interception was his third in the previous three games.
With Dunne out of the lineup, Howell commanded the UNI offense and threw two touchdowns. Howell found Daurice Fountain five times for 80 yards in the win and connected with the senior in the first half on a 23-yard touchdown over the top of the Sycamore defense.
“Offense scored most every possession of the first half. I thought that was important,” Farley said. “(Colton) was good. It’s hard to evaluate today as much as you want to but they did their job. They had to win this game and the prep for this game wasn’t the easiest prep either. There’s a lot at stake but at the same time they’re hearing all the things they’ve accomplished to this point and they still had to finish what they started.”
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The second half was hardly anything more than a countdown to zero on the game clock as Indiana State was unable to muster much offensively against UNI’s top-rated defense. UNI’s offense productively plodded along, with the highlight being a 17-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that consumed more than nine minutes of time in the third quarter.
The Sycamores threatened to score once in the second half, getting down to the UNI 18, but Keelon Brookins intercepted Isaac Harker with just under 14 minutes left in the fourth quarter.
With its win, Northern Iowa (7-4, 6-2) will undoubtedly receive an at-large bid to the 24-team FCS playoffs. Illinois State’s 20-7 loss to North Dakota State earlier in the day prevented the Panthers from having an opportunity to share the regular season conference championship with the Bison.
“Proud of (the players). Proud of our coaches,” Farley said. “You go back and look at the whole thing now as a body of work you got seven new coaches and this group of players that came together coming off last season and didn’t start real good. But I tell you what, they gathered themselves and they performed day in and day out and they did it in UNI style. Might be my best group of young men I’ve ever had.”
The FCS playoffs selection show airs at 10 a.m. Sunday on ESPNU.