AMES – The Northern Iowa Panthers didn’t come to Jack Trice Stadium to earn respect.
They came to earn a victory.
They nearly came away with both on Saturday.
The FCS No. 21 Panthers threw a major scare into No. 7 Iowa State before the Cyclones escaped with a 16-10 season-opening win.
UNI led for much of the first half and were within three points for most of the second half before falling short before a sellout crowd of 61,500 fans.
“I’m disappointed we lost,” UNI coach Mark Farley said. “We came here to win a football game. We were in position to do so. We didn’t finish two drives at the end and didn’t get where we wanted to be.”
Northern Iowa, a 30-plus point underdog, definitely proved it has another strong team as it turned in a gritty performance.
The Panthers twice drove into Cyclone territory in the second half, including the game’s final drive, but came up empty.
“We obviously have to get better in those situations,” Farley said, “if you’re going to beat a great team like Iowa State.”
UNI struck first when Quan Hampton caught a short pass from Will McElvain over the middle and then broke loose on his way to a 52-yard touchdown.
He has developed into one of the best defensive backs in the Missouri Valley Football Conference
“We knew we would have to break tackles to make big plays,” Hampton said. “We knew yards after the catch would be important. That’s what happened on that play and I was able to break free.”
ISU responded with a field goal to draw within 7-3 late in the opening quarter.
The Cyclones finally took the lead, moving ahead 10-7 on a 2-yard TD plunge by Breece Hall.
ISU benefited from a questionable pass interference call on the previous play on third-and-4. UNI’s Benny Sapp was flagged when it appeared the receiver stumbled to the ground.
UNI came right back with a methodical 10-play drive, capped by Matthew Cook’s 41-yard field goal. That knotted the game 10-10 with 2:35 left in the first half.
ISU grabbed a 13-10 lead when Andrew Mevis booted a 40-yard field goal on the final play of the half.
The Cyclones added the only points of the second half on a short field goal by Connor Assalley that put them up 16-10 with 6:18 left in the game.
UNI’s defense was superb in holding a much-hyped Iowa State offense in check for most of the day. The Panthers held Heisman candidate and ISU running back Breece Hall to just 69 yards and only three yards per carry.
CEDAR FALLS – Ask Jeremiah Johnson about Spencer Cuvelier and his eyes light up.
“Our defense played really hard against a tremendous offense,” Farley said. “Our whole football team played hard. We played with great intensity and stood up to the challenge. Our players did what we expected them to do. They were disciplined and played with great effort.”
UNI junior Will McElvain, who won a tough battle to retain his starting spot at quarterback, passed for 230 yards and one score. He was intercepted twice.
“Will battled and did a lot of good things,” Farley said. “But we need to win this game. We need to find a way to finish those last two drives and improve in those situations.”
McElvain also started here two years ago when UNI lost to ISU in triple-overtime.
“They have a great team,” McElvain said. “We’ve had success here before and we were all confident we could win.”
Hampton finished with eight catches for 99 yards.
“We knew it was going to be a battle,” Hampton said. “We all believed we could do it. We just didn’t come out with a win. We have to learn from this and keep improving.”
The Panthers were well aware they were a 30-plus point underdog on Saturday afternoon.
“I don’t think we’ve ever gone into a game we didn’t think we could win,” said UNI linebacker Spencer Cuvelier, who had seven tackles Saturday. “Absolutely, we felt a little disrespected for sure. That’s just outside noise that we try to block out. We just focus on our game and continue to get better.”
Even the referee disrespected Northern Iowa late in the game, referring to them as “Northern Illinois.”
Alfonzo Lambert was all over the field for Northern Iowa. He recorded nine tackles for the Panthers. Teammate Austin Evans also had nine total stops from his cornerback spot.
Cornerback Omar Brown had eight tackles and also excelled in pass coverage for UNI.
Iowa State outgained UNI 335-275 in total yardage. ISU quarterback Brock Purdy passed for 199 yards and rushed for 58. Purdy had two big runs for first downs in the final Cyclone scoring march.
The Panthers will travel to Sacramento State next Saturday.
“I don’t want to hear good job or good effort,” Farley said. “We should’ve won that football game, hands down. That’s the message I want our team to take away from this.”
Craig Sesker is a sports reporter for the Courier. Follow him on Twitter at @Craigsesker. You can reach him via email at Craig.Sesker@WCFCourier.com or via phone at 319-575-2891.