CEDAR FALLS — Big plays made up for occasional mistakes as 13th-ranked Northern Iowa won its Missouri Valley Football Conference opener 21-14 against No. 18 Youngstown State on Saturday at the UNI-Dome.
“It’s a chess match (with) the changes that are going on in that game,” UNI Coach Mark Farley said. “It’s tiring playing these guys.”
Three plays after a Tyler Hoosman fumble gave Youngstown State (4-1, 0-1) the ball back down seven with just over five minutes to play, UNI’s Elerson Smith and Tim Butcher combined for a sack of Penguins QB Nathan Mays on third down. YSU then elected to punt from its own 45-yard line and never got the ball back as UNI’s offense went 67 yards in eight plays in a drive that ended in victory formation on the Penguins 19.
“That’s what good football is,” UNI running back Trevor Allen said. “When the offense is up and the defense is down, it’s our job to help them and get them back in their stride and vice versa.”
UNI (3-2, 1-0) scored the game’s first touchdown late in the first quarter when McElvain stepped up in the pocket to avoid the pass rush and threw while on the move to Isaiah Weston for a 39-yard score. It’s Weston’s fourth consecutive game with a TD reception.
The Panthers scored their second touchdown on an eight-play, 79-yard drive that ended with a 10-yard Trevor Allen run late in the second quarter. Allen finished the game with a season-high 78 yards on 16 carries.
Earlier in the drive, Hoosman converted a third-and-20 with a 24-yard rush. Three plays later, McElvain connected with Jaylin James for a 42-yard gain to get into scoring position.
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Youngstown State immediately cut into UNI’s 14-point lead when Jermiah Braswell got behind the defense and reeled in a 75-yard touchdown catch from Mays on the first play of the next drive.
UNI answered the Penguins’ quick strike with what became its last touchdown of the evening on a 15-yard run by Hoosman. Hoosman’s TD was set up by another big play, a 47-yard completion to Weston, who finished with a career-high 108 yards on three receptions.
“I was able to (get past the defense) today and they were actually coming up to me like, ‘hey, we’re throwing it (to you),’ Weston said. “When we get big plays like that our rhythm starts to kick in.”
The Penguins scored their second touchdown on the opening drive of the second half and appeared to have made the proper adjustments to potentially draw even, but UNI switched to a 3-3-5 defense after playing a 4-2-5 the entire first half and piled up four second-half sacks, 2.5 from Smith.
McElvain’s 39-yard TD and 47-yard completion to Weston, 42-yard completion to James, and 34-yard completion to Aaron Graham on the game-clinching drive accounted for nearly half of UNI’s total yardage.
“The big plays (were) huge,” Farley said. “When people are playing the defenses that they are nowadays you gotta get behind them because they’re really challenging you to.”
UNI plays at No. 1 North Dakota State (5-0, 1-0) next Saturday at 1 p.m.