CEDAR FALLS, IA — The game was there for Northern Iowa to steal a victory in a win that seemingly the Panthers needed to stay if the FCS playoff chase.
But instead of the finish UNI needed, North Dakota State’s defense helped the Bison fend off a fourth-quarter Panther rally to hold onto a 24-20 win over UNI inside the UNI-Dome in front of 12,032 in attendance.
“A lot of people doubt our guys, a win is a win,” NDSU Coach Chris Klieman said. “I don’t care if it’s a four-point win or an eight-point win, some people want us to win by 30. My hats off to our guys, they played their tails off.”
Trailing 21-13 to start the fourth quarter, Panther quarterback Eli Dunne threw a touchdown to Briley Moore to get UNI to 24-20 with 12:10 left in the game.
UNI then looked poised to strike again when Elijah Campbell picked off Bison quarterback Easton Stick at the NDSU 34 with 3:19 left in the game. A 14 yard pass from Dunne to Trevor Allen on a 3rd and 12 play got UNI to the Bison 23.
On the next play, however, Dunne’s pass was high to a crossing Tyvis Smith and the ball deflected up into the air and into Bison linebacker Matt Plank’s hands.
“He should have caught it but at the same time it’s a football game and Tyvis played his butt off,” said UNI head coach Mark Farley. “He had the opportunity to make that play, I thought Eli gave him a chance, and he’s more upset than anybody.”
UNI stopped NDSU after surrendering one first down but Dunne’s last pass with 2 seconds left was intercepted by Tre Dempsey to secure the Bison victory.
With the win, NDSU improved to 7-1 overall and 4-1 in the MVFC, while the Panthers dropped to 3-5 and 2-3.
NDSU, by virtue of South Dakota State losing 38-21 earlier on Saturday at Illinois State, moved into a first place tie in the MVFC standings with the Jackrabbits.
NDSU took an early 7-0 lead following a Robbie Grimsley interception which set the Bison up at the UNI 24. King Frazier scored five plays later on a 1-yard run.
UNI responded with a 14-play drive getting an Austin Errthum field goal from 30 yards out with 13:12 left in the second quarter to make it 7-3.
NDSU lost Frazier to an apparent rib injury on the ensuing possession, meaning two of their top four running back were out with injury. Bruce Anderson was already out with a sprained ankle coming into this game.
The two teams would trade punts following the Frazier injury.
The Bison increased their lead to 14-3 as they overcame two holding plays to drive 71 yards in eight plays, the last when Jeff Illies slipped out to capture a 31-yard score from Stick with 1:22 left in the first half.
UNI answered once again driving all the way to the Bison 7 with six seconds left. A pass in the corner of the end zone was incomplete, and Errthum came on to nail a 25-yard field goal at the first half horn to make the score 14-6 in favor of NDSU.
The Panthers answered once again as a 27-yard pass from Eli Dunne to Michael Malloy moved UNI deep into NDSU
Dunne threw his second interception on the second play of the third quarter, a field possession switch that NDSU eventually made the Panthers pay.
After each team punted, running back Chase Morlock capped a 58-yard drive with an eight-yard touchdown run and with 7:19 left in the third quarter to increase the Bison lead, 21-6.
Following a UNI punt, Stick had Urzendowski open long but under threw him while under pressure and Malcolm Washington picked it off at the UNI 26. The Panthers marched 74 yards and ended the drive with a 17-yard touchdown pass to Jaylin James to pull within 21-13 heading into the fourth quarter.
Stick finished with just 118 yards passing with a touchdown and two interceptions for the Bison. Lance Dunn was the leading ground gainer for NDSU with 118 yards.
Dunne finished 216 yards passing with two scores and four interceptions. Smith was the lead ground gainer for UNI with 57 yards.
“Honestly, we’ve owned this league for years and now North Dakota State has taken possession of it,” said Farley. “We’re at the stage where we need to recruit a few more guys and play the kind of football UNI has.”
NDSU hosts Youngstown State next Saturday, while UNI travels to Indiana State.