BROOKINGS, S.D. — A 10-point second half pushed No. 6 Northern Iowa past No. 10 South Dakota State, 13-10, at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium Saturday afternoon in the second round of the FCS Playoffs.
“This was just a big win,” UNI coach Mark Farley said. “We all know (South Dakota State) is a great football team and it’s a hard place to play. To come in here and sustain the whirlwind early and then play the four quarters that we did, our team should be proud (and) our university should be happy.”
Tied at 10 with 7:58 remaining, UNI’s offense began what became a 12-play, 80-yard game-winning drive.
QB Will McElvain opened the drive with a 31-yard scramble to bring the Panthers to midfield. Three plays later, Farley sent the offense out on fourth-and-2 at the SDSU 42 and Trevor Allen narrowly got past the line to gain.
“We’re playing against a great football team in a big game and when you get in (that) situation you have to make those plays,” Farley said. “I knew we were up against something big, but I also knew that it was hard to get inside the 40-yard line against this defense. I felt that was going to be our shot to win the game.”
Three plays later, McElvain completed a 31-yard pass to Suni Lane to put UNI (10-4) at the SDSU 5. Three runs from Allen failed to reach the end zone, so Farley went to Matthew Cook, who converted an 18-yard go-ahead field goal with 2:10 to play.
“He’s growing up in front of us as we watch him play,” Farley said of McElvain. “You have to educate him and teach him, but you also have to let him play and he came back and made a tremendous play and that’s his game. And I tell you what, it was the difference in the game.”
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With no timeouts remaining, SDSU QB Keaton Heide couldn’t get the Jackrabbits (8-5) past their own 25 as a fourth-and-20 desperation heave for Jaxon Janke fell incomplete, sending UNI to the quarterfinals for the first time since 2015.
The Panthers will take on No. 2 James Madison in Harrisonburg, Va., next Saturday.
“It’s everything,” UNI linebacker Spencer Cuvelier said. “It’s a brand new season.”
The Panthers got themselves in position for their comeback with a TD drive to open the second half after going into the break trailing 10-3.
Allen scored the Panthers’ only touchdown of the game on the drive as UNI went 75 yards in 10 plays, seven of them runs.
“All that criticism (of the offense) was coming from the outside,” Allen said. “We know what we’re capable of and we showed everybody that today.”
South Dakota State turned the ball over three times and, after Allen’s TD Chase Vinatieri’s 45-yard field goal on the next drive was by Elerson G. Smith, who got into position courtesy Spencer Brown’s knock-back of the Jacks right guard.
“Last minute we decided to put Spencer in,” Smith said. “Kudos to Spencer because he got most of the push and drove the guy back. I just had to get my hands up.”
UNI’s offense struggled mightily in the first half, gaining only 54 yards on 31 plays, but Allen and Farley both mentioned how staying poised was their message as they anticipated the Jackrabbits would land a few punches.
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“There needed to be (halftime) adjustments, but I thought the more important thing was keeping our poise,” Farley said. “That’s what I’m most pleased about is how they stuck to the plan and stayed together.”
The Panthers win over the seventh-seeded Jackrabbits earns them “told you so” rights toward the FCS selection committee, which favored SDSU’s 38-7 regular season win over UNI’s strength of schedule and second-place Missouri Valley Football Conference finish.
Asked after the game if UNI has now effectively become the seeded team by beating SDSU, Elerson G. Smith had a quick response.
“We don’t need no seed,” Smith said with a laugh.