FCS 1st Round Playoffs: Defense Key to Northern Iowa Defeating San Diego 17-3

Northern Iowa DE Brawntae Wells returning his interception of San Diego QB Reid Sinnett for the game’s first touchdown in the first quarter of Saturday’s FCS playoff game in the UNI-Dome.

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa–With Northern Iowa’s offense struggling to make plays, the Panthers got a defensive touchdown and forced four turnovers to advance to the second round of the FCS playoffs with a 17-3 win over San Diego (9-3) in front of 3,743 in attendence at the UNI-Dome.

DE Brawntae Wells returned an interception for a touchdown early in the first quarter and FS Christian Jegen sealed the game with a pick late in the fourth quarter for Northern Iowa (9-4)

Wells scored on the game’s first possession by San Diego on an interception return of 34 yards for a touchdown. Jegen returned his interception 52 yards to the USD 7-yard line to set up the game sealer in the fourth quarter. A RB Trevor Allen run on the next play sealed the defensive battle.

“He started it (pointing to Wells), and he finished it (motioning at Jegen),” UNI Coach Mark Farley said.

Following Wells score in the first quarter, the game was a defensive struggle with neither team really getting much momentum.

“We weren’t very good on offense,” Farley said. “Number 1, give San Diego credit for how they played. Number 2, very frustrated and disappointed in our offense and that we weren’t better.”

UNI had its most explosive offensive play late in the second quarter to extend their lead after a 52-yard pass from QB Will McElvain to WR Isaiah Weston put UNI on the Toreros’ 12-yard line.

But two plays later, McElvain fumbled with San Diego recovering the ball. The Toreros took the turnover and drove 73 yards that led to PK Brandon Eickert 33-yard field goal with 10 seconds left to halftime to inch the Toreros closer in trailing 7-3 at the halftime break.

The defensive scheme followed into the third quarter as neither team could muster much offense at all. The lone drive that was close to a scoring drive for UNI ended with a 53-yard missed field goal by Matthew Cook that hit off the crossbar with 2:28 left in the frame.

The defensive changed in the fourth quarter as UNI increased its advantage to 10-3 to start the last frame. The Panthers drove from their own 10-yard line, UNI drove to the USD 22 yard line but the drive stalled there to set up a 39-yard Matthew Cook field goal at the 8:25 mark of the fourth quarter.

San Diego gained its first first down of the second half with 8:07 left in the game, but stalled after that as USD QB Reid Sinnett was sacked three plays later to force a punt. On the Toreros’ next two possessions, UNI forced turnovers. The first was Jegen’s interception and the second was on the drive following Allen’s ensuing touchdown. Jegen had a roll in this turnover as well as he jarred the ball out following a catch by Torero TE Zach Nelson that was recovered by LB Spencer Cuvelier that he returned to the USD 15-yard line.

“Hats off to them,” Sinnett said. “They did an excellent job of mixing their coverage. It was a challenging game across the board, but I could have done more to put us in better position.”

Cook missed a 32-yard field goal following the last turnover but UNI was able to hold the Toreros on downs on its last possession and kneel the final minute to secure the victory.

Sinnett, from Johnston, Iowa, played his last collegiete game in his home state and passed 22 of 36 for 187 yards and three interceptions.

McElvain passed for 13 of 27 for 186 yards for the Panthers.

UNI moves on to play at #7 seed South Dakota State next week. UNI suffered a loss at its Missouri Valley Football Conference rival 38-7 just two weeks ago and will have a chance to avenge that loss next week.