CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa experienced emotions on both sides of the spectrum ... elation and dejection.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, it was dejection in the end.
No. 15 Western Illinois scored with six seconds left to pull out a back-and-forth, 38-29, Missouri Valley Football Conference victory Saturday over UNI inside the UNI-Dome.
Sean McGuire’s 20-yard touchdown pass to Jaelon Acklin with time running out put the Leathernecks (4-1 overall, 1-1 in MVFC) in front, and Michael Bishoff’s 20-yard fumble recovery with no time left crushed 12,642 fans in a game where a wildly inconsistent Panther team nearly pulled out victory.
“Emotional whiplash,” said UNI tight end Elias Nissen following the loss. “We just needed to finish it. It is tough to handle ... never easy to take a loss and take a loss in the final six seconds.”
In many ways, UNI (2-3, 1-1) probably should’ve never been in position to win. Despite having just 38 offensive yards through the first 21 minutes of the first half, the Panthers led at halftime, 14-5, by scoring twice in the final five minutes of the second quarter.
Then after registering just three yards in the third quarter, and finding itself trailing 25-14 with 11 minutes and 1 second left in the fourth quarter, UNI woke up.
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Quarterback Eli Dunne directed two 80-plus yard scoring drives, throwing touchdowns of 18 to Nissen and then 16 to Aaron Graham with 1:12 left to rally the Panthers into a 29-25 lead.
“There was good and bad, but we have to be more consistent,” UNI coach Mark Farley said. “We were too inconsistent on offense and defense all night long.”
After Dunne found Graham for the go-ahead score, UNI’s inconsistent play reared its ugly head again as the ensuing kickoff sailed out of bounds giving Western Illinois the ball on its own 35 to start the game-winning drive.
It appeared UNI was going to hold on when WIU’s drive stalled at the Panther 49, and the Leathernecks were faced with a 4th and 15 play — a play that UNI defensive end Rickey Neal says he won’t be able to forget.
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The Panthers blitzed off the left edge, dropping Neal back into zone coverage. UNI didn’t get to McGuire fast enough, and he had just enough time to loft a 16-yard pass to Brandon Gaston that just got over Neal’s head.
“The play call was perfect,” Neal said. “Me, individually, I could’ve been five yards more to right and stop the out, the deep comeback. That is the play that keeps playing over and over in my head.
“Fourth and 15, I have the flat, I have the comeback and I didn’t get there.”
Western Illinois was at the UNI 20 when McGuire found Acklin, who had seven catches for 158 yards and two scores, open on a seam route for the game winner. It was McGuire’s third touchdown pass of the second half as he threw for 334 yards.
“We didn’t make enough plays, got to be able to close it out ... we needed to make more plays and we didn’t,” Farley said.
It was a weird game the entire day for UNI.
The Panthers couldn’t find any offensive early in the first half, but their defense was more than game after allowing Western to take a 3-0 lead on its opening possession.
And despite that, UNI appeared to take a 7-3 lead with 8 minutes left to half when Trevor Allen broke free for a 97-yard touchdown run that was called back because the Panthers were flagged for an illegal formation, five men in the backfield. Two plays later, Dunne was sacked in the end zone and WIU lead 5-0.
The safety appeared to wake UNI up, however. Dunne found Daurice Fountain for a 19-yard gain, and one play later hit a wide open Nissen for a 30-yard score. Somehow, someway UNI, which had just 38 yards before that scoring drive, led 7-5 with 4:53 left to halftime.
After a Leatherneck three and out, UNI got another big break when Dunne hit Fountain over the middle for a 16-yard gain inside the WIU 17, but as Fountain was fighting to get into the end zone he fumbled and it landed at Nissen’s feet who fell on it for a touchdown with 43 seconds left in the half.
“He was doing everything he could to get into the end zone,” Nissen said. “Fighting as hard as he could, and I thought if he gets within one or two yards I’d help push him into the end zone. All of a sudden the ball popped out and it was right in front of me.
“I guess I was in the right place at right time.”
Western Illinois dominated the third quarter, holding UNI to just three yards offensively, while Steve McShane ran for one touchdown, and McGuire hit Acklin on a 38-yard bomb to propel the Leathernecks into the lead.
While disappointment was all over the Panthers faces afterward, Farley said the only message is to stay the course.
“You have to believe what you are doing,” Farley said. “That was the conversation at the end.”
W. Illinois 38, N. Iowa 29
Western Illinois 3 2 13 20 — 38
Northern Iowa 0 14 0 15 — 29
WIU — Crosa 32 FG, 11:10. Scoring drive: 8 plays, 68 yards, 3:50.
WIU — Safety, Dunne tackled in end zone, 7:29.
UNI — Nissen 30 pass from Dunne (Drysdale kick), 4:53. Scoring drive: 3 plays, 54 yards, 1:15.
UNI — Nissen fumble recovery in end zone (Drysdale kick), :43. Scoring drive: 7 plays, 54 yards, 1:50.
WIU — McShane 1 run (Crosa kick), 9:47. Scoring drive: 3 plays, 25 yards, 1:28.
WIU — LeSure 46 pass from McGuire (pass failed), 4:17. Scoring drive: 5 plays, 79 yards, 2:25.
WIU — Acklin 38 pass from McGuire (Crosa kick), 11:01. Scoring drive: 3 plays, 69 yards, 1:25.
UNI — Nissen 18 pass from Dunne (Nissen pass from Dunne), 7:27. Scoring drive: 9 plays, 81 yards, 3:34.
UNI — Graham 16 pass from Dunne (Drysdale kick), 1:12. Scoring drive: 16 plays, 86 yards, 3:54.
WIU — Acklin 20 pass from McGuire (Crosa kick), :06. Scoring drive: 9 plays, 65 yards, 1:06.
WIU — Bischoff 20 fumble return, :00.
First downs 17 22
Rushes-yards 31-134 30-35
Passing 334 342
Comp-Att-Int 19-35-0 25-42-2
Return Yards 93 96
Punts-Avg. 8-33.8 6-45.7
Fumbles-Lost 0-0 3-2
Penalty-Yards 10-66 7-51
Time of Possession 31:38 28:22
W. ILLINOIS — S. McShane 13-56, M. Norris 10-37, J. Acklin 2-28, S. McGuire 5-10, B. Gaston 1-3.
UNI — T. Allen 12-22, J. Browning 9-19, E. Dunne 9-(minus 6).
W. ILLINOIS — S. McGuire 19-34-0-334, A. Fellner 0-1-0-0.
UNI — E. Dunne 25-41-2-342, J. James 0-1-0-0.
W. ILLINOIS — J. Acklin 7-158, S. McShane 3-64, I. LeSure 2-55, B. Gaston 2-37, J. Brown 1-8, C. Ratkovich 1-8, T. Harper 1-4, T. Slamans 2-0.
UNI — D. Fountain 9-103, E. Nissen 3-60, A. Graham 2-55, J. James 3-42, T. Allen 5-39, J. Rima 1-18, I. Weston 1-14, J. Browning 1-11.
WESTERN ILLINOIS – Taylor 3-10-13, Brott 1-7-8, Saunders 3-5-8, Holloway 5-1-6, Nelson 0-5-5, Rowe, 3-1-4, Fitzpatrick 2-2-4, Swenson 2-2-4, Carrera 3-3, Harleston 2-1-3, Bischoff 1-2-3, J’Len Smith 0-2-2. Josh Smith 2-0-2, Baxter 0-2-2, Griffith 0-1-1, Norris 1-0-2, Oquendo 0-1-1, Wilson 0-1-1, Hendon 1-0-1, Team 1-0-1
NORTHERN IOWA – Farley 4-10-14, Neal 5-2-6, Ferch 0-6-6, Reth 2-4-6, Lane 4-1-5, Allen 1-3-4, Sander 1-3-4, Campbell 1-3-4, Evans 3-0-3, Woods 0-2-2. Douglas 0-2-2, Fountain 1-0-1, Phillips 1-0-1, Lambert II 0-1-1, Suntken 1-0-1, Brinkman 0-1-1, Brown 1-0-1, Thomas 0-1-1
Tackles for Loss
WESTERN ILLINOIS – Taylor 1.5-4, Broww 0.5, Saunders 1-13. Nelson 0.5, Swenson 1-2, Bishoff 1.5-13, Olson 1-3
NORTHERN IOWA – Neal 2-11, Reth 1-1, Allen 1-1
WESTERN ILLINOIS – Taylor 0.5-2, Saunders 1-12, Swenson 1-2, Bishoff 1.5-13
NORTHERN IOWA – 2-11