CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa football kept its FCS playoff hopes alive with a defense-led defeat of No. 14 Illinois State on Saturday, 26-16.
Before the Panthers were able to settle in, it looked like a long afternoon could be in store after the game’s opening kickoff. Illinois State executed an extended onside kick, recovering the ball and beginning its first offensive possession at UNI’s 28-yard line. UNI’s defense held the Redbirds to 3 points after the recovery, setting the tone for what became a nightmarish afternoon for Illinois State’s offense.
“Well-planned and well-played,” UNI coach Mark Farley said of his defense. “They really did a nice job. Coaches and players. I really liked the pressure we got from our line. The coverage was very good and we went after the football like we were supposed to.”
UNI answered the Redbirds on its own first drive but failed to come away with more than a field goal despite Deion McShane’s 50-yard kickoff return. The Panthers settled for field goals on three of their next four drives, continuing a trend of red-zone troubles that began a week ago against Western Illinois.
“I give credit to (Illinois State),” Farley said. “We have to find ways to score. You’d like to come away with 7 points.”
With its offense failing to reach the end zone, UNI’s defense continued to stymie the Redbirds, forcing punts on their next four drives. On the first play of its sixth possession of the half, Illinois State QB Jake Kolbe was intercepted by Duncan Ferch, who scampered 31 yards to the end zone for UNI’s first touchdown — tying Deiondre Hall’s school record of four career interception returns for a touchdown — and a 19-6 halftime lead.
“You see the ball come out and you’re breaking already and (it) kind of (landed) right in my stomach and then nobody was in front of me,” UNI senior linebacker Duncan Ferch said. “It was nice to get on the board and get a bigger lead for us.”
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UNI extended its lead at the beginning of the second half when Kolbe threw his second interception. After a Bryce Douglas sack put the Redbirds into third-and-long, Korby Sander — who finished with a team-high 10 tackles — returned Kolbe’s errant pass 31 yards, setting up a two-play, 21-yard scoring drive capped by a 14-yard Marcus Weymiller touchdown run.
The Redbirds began the second half continuing their struggles to move the ball, failing to get past midfield for 11 consecutive drives before doing so on their last two possessions.
Kolbe, who entered the fourth quarter 7-for-12 for 48 yards and the two interceptions, mustered two touchdown throws in the game’s final eight minutes. The Redbirds’ 2-point conversion attempt failed on their first fourth-quarter touchdown, leaving them three scores behind at 26-9. Once Illinois State punched in its second and final touchdown of the afternoon with 3:43 left and no timeouts remaining, the Panthers salted away the clock, driving 63 yards in eight plays for their fifth win of the season.
“We were 4-3, we were sitting good, then we lay an egg last week,” Ferch said. “Pretty much we said, ‘well, we’re in the playoffs already.’ We have to win and keep going. This is the first step in it.”
Northern Iowa (5-4, 4-2) travels to Ohio next week to take on Youngstown State (3-6, 2-4). Kick is scheduled for 11 a.m.