CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa clung to an 8-point lead as No. 3 South Dakota State lined up a final drive with 32 seconds remaining and a chance to draw even.
On the first play of the drive, SDSU quarterback Taryn Christion threw wide for Cade Johnson and Xavior Williams intercepted the pass and returned it for a touchdown, sealing a 24-9 upset.
“It’s probably the best (overall) performance of the season,” UNI head coach Mark Farley said. “The (players) really have grown off these last few games. Defense did it. Offense did it. And the crowd did it. I’ve always said the Dome’s worth seven points and that was the seven points it came up with today.”
On its first possession, SDSU and Christion showed flashes of what’s made them a dangerous unit. UNI opened the game in its 3-3-5 defensive alignment it used with success in last week’s win over South Dakota, but Christion completed passes of 25 and 13 yards without facing much pressure before the drive stalled at the UNI 20, forcing a 37-yard field goal by Chase Vinatieri to grab an early 3-0 lead.
After UNI gained just one first down on its first possession, SDSU again moved downfield but UNI’s defense stalled the drive again, this time at the its 31. Vinatieri’s 48-yard field goal attempt missed wide right and rather than the anticipated shootout, the tone began to be set for the defensive slugfest as the Panthers were finding success alternating defensive alignments.
“It was to confuse (Christion), if we could, but it was also (that) we weren’t deep enough in either package to play four quarters of football,” Farley said of the alignment switches.
Still trailing 3-0, the Panthers put together their first scoring drive with just under nine minutes to play in the second quarter. Dunne found Deion McShane on a short crossing route and the freshman made a couple defenders miss as he gained 38 yards down to the SDSU 27. One play later, Jalen Rima got over the top of coverage and Dunne hit him in stride for a 27-yard score, giving the Panthers a lead they wouldn’t give up.
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Cade Johnson, who totaled 121 yards receiving on seven catches, routinely gave the UNI defense headaches. On third-and-7 at the UNI 25, Christion threw his second interception of the season on an attempt for Johnson. Korby Sander intercepted the pass and said postgame that Farley spoke to him before the possession about Johnson.
“(Farley) said to hang on (Johnson) a little more in our ‘five’ coverage,” Sander said. “That’s exactly what I did and (Christion) threw the ball right to me.”
UNI turned Christion’s turnover into points. A six-play, 83-yard drive that featured a healthy dose of wildcat runs set up a 26-yard pass from Dunne to Briley Moore. Moore was brought down at the 1 and one play later, Trevor Allen leapt over the SDSU defensive line for the score, giving UNI a 14-3 lead.
“I’m very pleased with our offense,” Farley said. We shot ourselves in the foot a couple drives. We hit some big plays. The wildcat was productive and they did what they had to do to win.”
SDSU’s offense mustered two fourth-quarter scoring drives that netted only 6 points. UNI’s defense held the Jackrabbits, who entered the game averaging 48.4 points per game, out of the end zone for the first time since 2013.
UNI captain Marcus Weymiller, who rushed for team-high 110 yards on 20 carries, said the upset win means a lot.
“The win is huge,” Weymiller said. “They could be ranked (anywhere), this win means a lot because it’s another win (and) another step in the right direction.”