CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa’s offense may not have been good enough, but its defense shouldered the load Saturday afternoon at the UNI-Dome in a 17-3 FCS first-round playoff win over San Diego.
The Toreros (9-3) — champions of the non-scholarship Pioneer League — trailed the Panthers 10-3 with 3:47 to play despite two turnovers and only 163 total yards before the drive.
Three plays into its last-ditch drive, QB Reid Sinnett threw his third interception of the game with Christian Jegen returning it to San Diego’s 7-yard line.
UNI’s next play — a 7-yard TD run by Trevor Allen — sealed the win and a trip to the second round next Saturday at South Dakota State.
“I think we played with great discipline,” Jegen said. “There (were) quite a bit of trick plays, a lot of double-moves and trying to get us to bite down on those short passes. I think the secondary played with good eyes and were able to cover up anything that was deep.”
The Panthers were clinging to a 7-3 lead to begin the fourth quarter. UNI’s offense — which had eight of its 16 drives end with a punt — mustered what became its only scoring drive of the afternoon other than Allen’s score after the Jegen INT. After 13 plays and 68 yards, the drive stalled at the San Diego 22 and Matthew Cook converted a 39-yard field goal.
UNI’s offense got into the San Diego red zone only three times, once after McElvain connected with Isaiah Weston for a 52-yard gain, only to have McElvain fumble two plays later and it be recovered by the Toreros.
Meanwhile, Weston — who was a game-time decision with turf toe — left the game midway through the third quarter with an injury to his right side after a 47-yard reception was overturned.
“No. 1, give San Diego credit for how they played. No. 2, very frustrated and disappointed in our offense that we weren’t better,” UNI coach Mark Farley said. “The key to that football game was the defense not getting frustrated (and) just doing their job (and) the special teams not getting frustrated and doing their job. That’s why it’s a good team win.”
UNI’s defense — which held San Diego to 213 total yards on 65 plays — started the game as well as it finished.
Brawntae Wells intercepted Sinnett’s second pass of the afternoon and returned it 31 yards for a touchdown.
Wells, Caden Houghtelling and Jared Brinkman each recorded sacks and Omar Brown accounted for the Panthers’ other interception of Sinnett in the second quarter.
San Diego’s offensive struggles intensified in the second half. The Toreros totaled 78 yards, gained only two first downs and ran just five plays in the red zone.
“(Brawntae) started it with the intercept for a touchdown and (Christian Jegen) finished it with the (interception),” Farley said. “Just good defensive football. Credit San Diego, I thought they did an exceptional job.”
UNI’s win sets up a rematch with South Dakota State (8-4) next Saturday in Brookings, S.D. The Panthers lost 38-7 in the regular-season meeting.
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“I know personally I am (looking forward to it),” Jegen said. “I think that we didn’t perform to the level we’re capable of last time. We’ve got a chip on our shoulder and something to prove.”