BROOKINGS, S.D. — Four turnovers from quarterback Will McElvain, poor special teams play and costly penalties sent No. 8 South Dakota State past No. 4 Northern Iowa at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium on Saturday, 38-7.
“We didn’t play good enough,” said a clearly frustrated UNI coach Mark Farley. “(Special teams) was terrible.”
Christian Jegen’s third-down sack of Nathan Heide at the beginning of the fourth quarter gave UNI (7-4, 5-2) hope of putting together a comeback from its 17-7 deficit, but McElvain — who had already thrown two interceptions — fumbled on a QB keeper on the first play of the following drive. SDSU’s Don Gardner scooped up the fumble and returned it 24 yards for a score with 13:16 remaining, effectively sealing the win and putting the Panthers’ hopes of a first-round FCS Playoffs bye in jeopardy.
“(Will) had a makeshift group of guys around him (today),” Farley said. “I don’t even want to go there, but it wasn’t Will, it was the multitude of things.”
The Jackrabbits (8-4, 5-2) — who led 7-0 at halftime — scored the game’s first 17 points as QB Keaton Heide took advantage of comfortable pockets, completing a school-record 14 consecutive passes, including five on a 73-yard touchdown drive to begin the second half.
“At 7-0 at halftime, man, we were in great shape,” Farley said. “Because we had erred in the punt team, we had erred in so many different ways and the defense stopped them and shut them down. We had everything we wanted — on the road — at 7-0.”
“The difference in the game was the drive (to begin) the second half. When they drove the field and scored on the first series of the second half, that one hurt. That was the drive of the game.”
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McElvain’s first two interceptions came on the Panthers’ first drives of the first and second quarters. Then, after Gardner’s fumble return, the redshirt freshman QB threw his third INT when his pass for Logan Wolf bounced off the freshman’s hands and into Michael Griffin’s, eliminating all hope of a miraculous comeback.
UNI’s defense — which entered Saturday’s game ranked third in in the Missouri Valley Football Conference — was gouged in the first quarter by a 65-yard reverse pass that set up the Jackrabbits’ first TD. The unit struggled to overcome its offense’s turnovers and special teams mistakes as Nate Murphy shanked two punts that netted 34 yards and a 34-yard third-quarter SDSU punt return set up the Jackrabbits’ third score.
“The defense wasn’t good enough,” Farley said. “You’ve got to be good for four quarters, not for two quarters. This game should have been 10-7, something like that.”
With wide receiver Isaiah Weston (lower body) held out of Saturday’s loss the Panthers’ passing game looked pedestrian without its deep threat. However, a bright spot emerged in Sam Schnee’s debut at running back, which ended in 74 yards on 18 carries and the redshirt freshman’s first career touchdown.
“He played hard,” Farley said. “He was all we had (and) he did good.”
UNI (7-4, 5-2) hosts Western Illinois (1-10, 1-6) next Saturday at 1 p.m.