CEDAR FALLS — No. 5 Northern Iowa got an uninspiring 17-9 win over Indiana State Saturday afternoon at the UNI-Dome.
The Sycamores — who have now lost four in a row — were in the red zone and threatening to tie the score with just over seven minutes remaining until Kurtis Wilderman’s pass into the end zone was intercepted by Christian Jegen.
“The quarterback scrambled so I saw him get off Austin (Evans) and I was like, ‘(the receiver’s) wide-open,’ so I just darted across the field and dove hoping I’d catch it and I did,” Jegen said.
UNI (7-3, 5-1) — which only totaled two second-half first downs and 35 total yards — got its second first down of the half after the pick but failed to sustain the drive and was forced to punt with just over three minutes left.
Six plays later, after Wilderman and the Indiana State (3-7, 1-5) offense got past midfield to the UNI 38, Elerson G. Smith sealed the win with a sack and forced fumble recovered by Jared Brinkman.
“At the end we ran a knife game a few plays before (my sack) so I came underneath and I didn’t get through, but, having said that, since we showed that to (the offensive lineman) I faked the knife and just gave him a little step inside and he just bit really hard and I came around the edge and ended up getting the strip-sack,” Smith said. “It was a real fun moment.”
Safety Spencer Perry also grabbed his first interception as a Panther midway through the second quarter. UNI’s defense — which entered Saturday’s game with a Missouri Valley Football Conference-leading plus-9 turnover margin — increased its season takeaway total to 23 while holding the Sycamores to six points on their two red-zone trips.
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“That’s crazy that we’ve had that many turnovers,” defensive end Smith said. “That’s a pretty cool stat.”
As UNI’s defense continued to prove why it’s regarded amongst the best in the FCS, the Panthers struggles’ on offense were not limited to the second half.
After totaling 112 yards in its first two drives, UNI mustered just 135 on its last nine — with 70 coming on a late second-quarter drive capped by a 13-yard touchdown run by Trevor Allen.
Isaiah Weston — who left the game late in the second quarter with a lower body injury — helped set up the Panthers’ first touchdown with a 47-yard catch. Two plays later, Suni Lane reeled in a perfectly placed pass from Will McElvain for a 25-yard score.
McElvain — who completed 11 of 20 passes for 167 yards — said the offense still has yet to play a complete game.
“I thought that we were all confident and I thought we had things going in the right direction, so to kind of go flat there for a second, it was kind of tough,” McElvain said. “We’ve got to be able to rebound.”
UNI travels to No. 4 South Dakota State (7-3, 4-2) next Saturday for a 2 p.m. kickoff.
“(The players) really need to enjoy the win,” Farley said. “Sometimes you walk off the field and since it was such a battle you kind of question it a little bit, but man, a win is a win.”