Four takeaways by its defense and clutch playmaking from redshirt freshman quarterback Will McElvain pushed No. 9 Northern Iowa past No. 7 Illinois State, 24-10, on Saturday afternoon at Hancock Stadium.
Before McElvain added to his season highlight reel with another memorable play, a 34-yard Illinois State field goal trimmed UNI’s lead to 14-10 with 49 seconds left in the third quarter.
With an arm around his leg, McElvain spun out of a sack and found Suni Lane — who scored his first career touchdown on a 16-yard reception near the end of the first half — for a 27-yard TD and an 11-point lead with 11 minutes remaining.
“That’s Will being Will. He’s slippery,” Lane said on the Panther Sports Radio Network postgame show. “That’s why we like him. Scrambles, that’s something we work every day in practice.”
After McElvain’s heroics, UNI’s defense — which also intercepted Redbirds QB Brady Davis in the second quarter — stole all hopes of an Illinois State comeback with three consecutive takeaways.
Christian Jegen intercepted Davis on the first play of Illinois State’s drive following Lane’s second TD. Four plays later, Matthew Cook extended UNI’s lead to 24-10 with a 23-yard field goal.
Roosevelt Lawrence forced a fumble on the Redbirds' next drive that was recovered by Xavior Williams. Cook again added to the UNI (6-3, 4-1 MVFC) lead with a 33-yard field goal.
Then, down 17 with less than six minutes remaining, Davis threw his third interception, and second to Omar Brown, giving UNI its first win in Normal since 2011 and keeping the chances of a first-round playoff bye alive for the Panthers.
“That was fun. I’ve never been a part of a game where you get three back-to-back turnovers,” UNI defensive back Christian Jegen said. “The whole team was feeding off of it.”
McElvain completed 14 of 28 passes for 189 yards and three touchdowns. Jaylin James reeled in McElvain’s first TD pass of the game in the first quarter on an 11-yard reception.
Meanwhile, running backs Trevor Allen and Tyler Hoosman both left the game with injuries and did not return. Nick McCabe came in late in the third quarter and piled up 44 yards on 15 carries.
Defensively, the Panthers limited James Robinson, the leading rusher in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, to 39 yards on 16 carries and held the Redbirds (6-3, 3-2) to 210 total yards.
UNI hosts Indiana State (3-6, 1-4) for a 4 p.m. kickoff Saturday at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls.
“We get to go home for two of the next three (games), and we just got to take one at a time,” UNI Coach Mark Farley said. “But the importance of the Dome right now, the importance of all this really just magnified after the win here today.
“Because, we get back home (and) that Indiana State game is huge right now to us. The sky’s the limit right now for this football team.”