CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa struck first, and second, but came up short in its upset bid of No. 1 North Dakota State, falling 56-31 Saturday at the UNI-Dome.
No. 22 UNI took a 3-point lead into the fourth quarter but was outscored 28-0 in the final 15 minutes, looking worn down by NDSU’s relentless running game that churned its way to 344 yards on 48 attempts.
“We didn’t get off blocks good enough,” UNI head coach Mark Farley said. “We didn’t make the right adjustments quick enough. Our passing game was tremendous. 99.9 percent of the time we win with defense. To score 31 points and not win is disheartening.”
On the third play from scrimmage, Eli Dunne hit Briley Moore for a 64-yard touchdown. After a defensive stand, UNI put together its second consecutive scoring drive. A nine-play, 92 yard-drive was capped with an 8-yard touchdown run from Marcus Weymiller.
North Dakota State finally answered courtesy of a 20-yard touchdown pass from Easton Stick to Darrius Shepherd. Less than three minutes later, after a Dunne interception was returned by Marquise Bridges to the UNI 33, the Bison erased the lead when Stick completed a swing pass to Lance Dunn for a touchdown.
UNI continued to trade blows with the Bison. Dunne capped an eight-play, 69-yard drive with a 24-yard strike to Jaylin James, re-grabbing the lead at 21-14. Less than five minutes later, NDSU punched back and evened the score again when Dunn scored his second touchdown, this time on the ground from 8 yards out.
Moore came up big for the second time just before the half, reeling in a 32-yard pass from Dunne to put UNI in field goal range. With four seconds remaining. Austin Errthum’s 32-yard field goal gave the Panthers a 24-21 lead at the break.
“They had us on our heels in the first half. Give them credit,” North Dakota State head coach Chris Klieman said. “We were able to make a few adjustments at halftime. (The) biggest thing we talked about (was) just winning the line of scrimmage.”
The back-and-forth continued in the third quarter. Stick threw his third touchdown of the day with 8:50 left in the third, finding Shepherd again.
Before the end of the quarter, UNI punched back, but it was the last time the Panthers did so. Deion McShane reeled in a 26-yard pass from Dunne to head into the game’s final 15 minutes with a 31-28 lead.
The unraveling began on the first play of the fourth quarter, when Stick tossed his fourth touchdown of the afternoon. A quick hitting route to running back Bruce Anderson went 75 yards, immediately answering the UNI score and retaking the lead.
“The one play where they hit right after we scored and went ahead, hit the seam pass, that was a good play, good time, they readjusted an adjustment,” Farley said. “That was a good call.”
The Panthers went 10 yards on six plays on their following drive, allowing a sack of Dunne on third-and-8. The Bison then hit their stride after the UNI punt, going 78 yards on 11 plays, nine of them runs, to push their lead to 42-31 with just over six minutes remaining.
What had looked like a possible upset of No. 1 for over 45 minutes quickly turned into a blowout as the Panthers were forced to play catch-up. UNI turned the ball over on downs on its next two possessions and the Bison scored on runs of 31 and 25 yards by Stick and Adam Cofield.
Farley said he viewed it as a two-possession loss. Meanwhile, Dunne, who finished 27-of-41 passing for 362 yards, three touchdowns and an interception, said there are positives to take out of the gut-wrenching loss.
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“We knew that we were right in it the whole game,” Dunne said. “We could (have) ended up winning it if we played a little better in the fourth quarter. I think from this point we can be really successful if we prepare like it’s a championship every single week going forward from here.”