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PORTLAND, Ore. | There were many elements that went into the University of Northern Iowa's 29-17 FCS second-round playoff victory at Portland State Saturday night.

But two recurring themes helped advance UNI to the quarterfinals for the 13th time and into a rematch with four-time defending national champion and No. 3 seed North Dakota State (11-2) Saturday at 11 a.m. in a game that will air on ESPN.

As has been the case during most of the Panthers' seven-game winning streak, stifling defense and a punishing ground game eventually wore down another tough opponent.

Tyvis Smith (207) and Aaron Bailey (200) each rushed for more than 200 yards and the 401 total rushing yards mark the second time UNI has gone over 400 in a game in four weeks.

"Great game to have two 200-yard rushers, in a game like this," UNI head coach Mark Farley said.

Defensively, UNI held a Portland State team that had games with total yardage outputs of 682 and 670 this season to just 285, its second-lowest output of the season.

In particular, the Panthers took away one of the Vikings' favorite offensive sets -- a five-wide, empty backfield from which quarterback Alex Kuresa would find a hole and be off to the races with a QB draw.

Instead of sitting back on that formation and letting Kuresa read the field, UNI blitzed every time it saw it, and Kuresa said it took Portland State out of its offensive rhythm.

'We played Washington State. The Cougars had a lot of great athletes. We played against Southern Utah and North Dakota, too. But that's one of, if not the best defense we've faced this year," Kuresa said.

"They had a really good game plan. Took us out of a couple of things we wanted to do. In our empty personnel, I like to sit back there, and it opens up holes for me to run. When they blitzed it, it took us out of that. We couldn't run that anymore."

The game plan was to keep Kuresa in the pocket as much as possible and attack the Vikings' offense, rather than sit back and react. Kuresa had his moments as the dangerous scrambler he is, but the Panthers also forced him into two critical mistakes -- interceptions to Brett McMakin and Jared Farley in the second half.

McMakin's pick came with under six minutes to go and UNI never gave the ball back to Kuresa and Portland State.

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"We knew we had to plug up the middle and make sure the quarterback didn't get out of the pocket, not let him run," UNI defensive lineman Isaac Ales said. "He got out a few times, but we wanted to get upfield and not let them take the game to us."

What made Saturday's performance even more impressive were the moving parts the Panthers had to use because of injuries.

Offensively, Robert Rathje hurt his left ankle in the first quarter. He came back for a series, but did not play in the second half. Justin Putney took over, and it was a seamless transition for a unit that has been playing shorthanded since the Indiana State game when starting left tackle Cal Twait suffered a season-ending injury.

Putney was flawless with his snaps despite the fact it never stopped raining and the ball was continually wet.

"Replacing the center is the toughest thing to do, especially with the wet ball, and all the snaps were good and the timing stayed on," said Farley. "Justin played great. Again. we are still getting better."

On the defensive side, an injury prevented the Panthers' fifth-leading tackler, Adam Reth, who started the first 12 games at defensive tackle, from making the trip.

Ales moved inside to Reth's tackle position, and Wyatt Peiffer jumped in at defensive end along with Ronelle McNeil. Then in the second half, after D'Shawn Dexter was disqualified for targeting, A.J. Allen was the next man in. (Dexter will miss the first half of the NDSU game as part of his penalty). 

"I thought the players adjusted well and communicated with the coaches on the sidelines well," Farley said.


RECORD BREAKERS: Several UNI single-season records fell Saturday:

  • Bailey now has 1,301 rushing yards, which ranks him fifth all-time at UNI and are the most ever for a quarterback. Tirrell Rennie rushed for 1,291 in 2010.
  • Bailey's two touchdown runs give him 19, setting a UNI mark for rushing touchdowns and a Missouri Valley Football Conference mark for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback.
  • Defensive end Karter Schult picked up two tackles for loss against Portland State, giving him 22. That's a UNI record, passing John Hermann's 20.5 in 2005.
  • UNI’s 3,146 net rushing yards this season is a new school record. It passes the 2,956 that the Panthers had in 2007.    

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Sports reporter for The Courier

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