CEDAR FALLS – It came from every direction.
From the front four to the secondary, everyone on Northern Iowa’s defense got their fair share of time behind the line of scrimmage on Saturday afternoon.
The result was record-breaking.
Khristian Boyd’s sack in the winding minutes of the fourth quarter was the exclamation point on a 12-sack day from the Panthers defense as they completely silenced Western Illinois to the tune of a 41-3 triumph inside the UNI-Dome.
It breaks the previous mark of 11 sacks in a single contest, done four times, most recently against North Dakota State in 2010.
“Man, that’s a lot of sacks,” Panthers head coach Mark Farley said. “We were really locked in how to take away the throwing game. It was a good plan, executed with great players.”
Five different players registered two sacks. Senior Jared Brinkman, an Iowa City Regina grad, had the record-tying sack in the fourth quarter.
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He was the lone senior that dropped Leathernecks quarterback Connor Sampson at least once.
“We were having fun today,” Brinkman said. “It will be fun, over the years, something to return this team by. I’m glad we can leave a legacy.”
Sampson didn’t have much room to throw either, primarily due to the coverage of UNI’s secondary. Korby Sander, Benny Sapp III, Omar Brown and Austin Evans and others limited WIU’s three wide receivers to below their season averages.
And when those defensive backs weren’t in coverage, they were blitzing. Jevon Brekke came in unblocked twice to send Sampson onto the turf.
“We tightened up our coverage this week,” Farley said. “We were getting loose over the last couple of weeks. They did an outstanding job start to finish.”
The Panthers defense made up for an anemic first quarter offense. Backed up to their own 1-yard line, Dom Williams needed one play to light a spark for his unit.
He darted up the middle and raced down the Leathernecks sideline for a 99-yard TD to put UNI up 10-3 with 5 minutes, 7 seconds left in the second quarter.
That was the other record broken on Saturday. The previous record for longest rushing play from scrimmage and longest rushing touchdown was 98 yards, set by Arnold Paulsen in 1951.
“I was towards the 50-yard line, starting looking at the jumbotron, because I started to get tired,” said Williams, who finished with a game-high 166 yards on 15 carries. “It felt like a long, long run.”
For all of the first 30 minutes, that was the only explosive play that came out of it. Both sides struggled to move the ball.
Western Illinois was a yard away from potentially getting six, but a false start negated that and it had to settle for a field goal to tie the contest up at three.
It went 0-for-3 on fourth down conversions.
“We knew they did a lot of sneaky stuff,” Brinkman said. “Every 3rd and 1, 4th and 1, teams are mostly going to run. That’s time to man up and see who can hold their ground.”
UNI had two drives that suddenly ended due to the Leathernecks forcing and recovering fumbles. It had another drive where Day was sacked on fourth down due to him not being ready for the snap.
“We came out lackadaisical,” Williams said.
Farley called it a “attitude adjustment” that paced the Panthers for 31 unanswered points in the second half.
“I thought we were sloppy,” he added. “I thought we were doing some things that were un-focused. They united and playing within the play. That was the biggest difference.”
Boy, did the attitude ever swing.
The Panthers (6-5, 4-4 MVFC) forced two straight punts and proceed to score on their first two offensive drives behind the speed and IQ of Terrance Kamara.
Kamara capped a 7-play, 37-yard drive with a 14-yard TD to put them up two scores then as UNI quarterback Theo Day is pressured and fumbles, it dribbles right to Kamara, who runs 38 yards into Leatherneck territory to keep the drive alive.
“Us working throughout the summer, knew he had a special talent,” Williams said. “This is the perfect time for him to be able to shine. He stepped up big time.”
On the next play, Day hits Sam Schnee 30 yards for the touchdown. The product of Dubuque Senior finished with a team-high five catches on six targets for 82 yards.
Farley called him “loyal.”
“He’s dependable, he’s not flashy,” Farley added. “He’s always there to make a play. That’s really what makes our football team is guys like him.”
There were other seniors who got their names into the final stat book of the regular season.
Austin Evans had two interceptions, the first one was a 46-yard pick-six. Zac Kibby tip-toed the sideline for the final of three interceptions by UNI and was surrounded by his teammates on its sideline.
“We’ll give up those seven, eight yard routs,” Brinkman said. “We’ll give those up all day and try to force a longer drive, force a mistake.”
Even Nate Murphy, the Panthers punter, was able to booth through a 24-yard field goal.
“We talked about that earlier in the week and I’m glad I remembered,” Farley said. “I kind of surprised him, I caught him half-way out so he didn’t get to warm up. It all timed out.”
Day finished with 241 yards on 14 completions. Kamara ended with 100 total yards of offense. Now, UNI will have to hold its breath to see if its record and resume is enough for an at-large berth.
It played a grueling schedule, but was able to beat Big Sky Conference champions Sacramento State and other top-25 teams in the latest FCS rankings.
Farley wholeheartedly believes the Panthers are a playoff-caliber team.
“We did what we could do, today, and hopefully other people have done some things to help us,” Farley said. “I hope they get another opportunity to play together.”
Williams, a Kansas transfer, has never sniffed the playoffs or a bowl game. It leaves him with a unique feeling.
“It is new,” he said. “I believe if we are in the playoffs, we can be a special team.”
Yet for the returners, they have been on the bubble before and they have had no reason to worry before. They just hope the committee views UNI’s season in its entirety.
“I know what this team can do if we get in the playoffs,” Brinkman said. “The teams we had to play, on the road, this team dug down deep and pulled out a lot of wins. Whatever happens, love this team forever.”