UNI Panthers

UNI football falls to South Dakota State in spring season-opener decided in final seconds

Panthers lose offensive coordinator to NFL, multiple key contributors to injury and lose to Jackrabbits, 24-20

CEDAR FALLS — An epic final seven minutes, along with a blocked punt and a solid debut from freshman quarterback Mark Gronowski snuck No. 5 South Dakota State past No. 3 Northern Iowa, 24-20, Friday night at the UNI-Dome.

Trailing 17-13 with 6:48 left in the fourth quarter, UNI’s Jared Brinkman stripped Gronowski and Benny Sapp III recovered at the Jackrabbits 19-yard line.

Two plays later, UNI quarterback Will McElvain — who completed 19 of 29 attempts for 164 yards — threw a 13-yard back-shoulder pass for freshman Tysen Kershaw that connected for a go-ahead touchdown and 20-17 lead with 5:59 to play.

The Jackrabbits responded, going 75 yards in 10 plays in what became the game-winning drive.

Gronowski — who threw for 194 yards and two touchdowns in his college debut — connected on a 43-yard pass to tight end Zach Heins that went to the UNI 3. Three plays later on third-and-1, the freshman executed a play-action fake and connected with Pierre Strong Jr. in the flat for a 1-yard touchdown pass with only 19 seconds remaining for the game-winning score.

“We got two good football teams out there that battled back-and-forth. Made a mistake at the end, and that one is the one you’re going to remember, but at the same time it was — I didn’t like how we played in the first half,” UNI coach Mark Farley said. “I was pleased with how they changed the tempo and the momentum of the game in the second half.

“They made a nice play-action play, we made a bad call and they got the touchdown.”

Before Brinkman and Sapp teamed up for their big play late in the fourth quarter, the Panthers were already climbing back from a critical error.

With 2:57 remaining in the second quarter Nate Murphy’s punt from the UNI 24 was blocked by Isaiah Stallbird and. Three plays later, Gronowski scrambled for a 5-yard touchdown just two minutes after the Jackrabbits had scored their first TD.

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Along with its special teams miscue and blown coverage on SDSU’s final drive, the Panthers were set back by numerous injuries.

Starting running back Tyler Hoosman and center Mason Neisen did not dress for the game while wide receivers Isaiah Weston (leg) and Quan Hampton (head/neck) left the game with injuries.

Hoosman’s absence placed a heavy workload on Dom Williams, who ran 14 times for only 28 yards. Meanwhile, SDSU outgained UNI in total offense 310 to 192.

The Panthers’ struggles on offense came just one day after offensive coordinator Ryan Mahaffey met with athletics director David Harris — per a university official — to inform him of his accepting a job with the Green Bay Packers. Mahaffey’s departure put offensive assistant Shawn Watson in the role of play-caller, but McElvain said after the game the transition between play-callers was smooth.

“We felt good coming into the game because we did some good things in practice. We’ve just got to get going earlier,” UNI quarterback Will McElvain said. “We didn’t have rhythm early in the game and I was just glad that we were able to play through that because that’s going to happen in football. I think we just got to be able to finish drives. Score touchdowns instead of field goals.”

UNI travels to Youngstown State next Saturday for an 11 a.m. kickoff (ESPN+).

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