HARRISONBURG, Va. — The University of Northern Iowa defense was fantastic Friday.
Second-seeded James Madison’s defense was better.
The Dukes (13-1) allowed the Panthers to cross midfield just once as they advanced to the FCS playoff semifinals with a 17-0 victory over UNI (10-5) at Bridgeforth Stadium.
James Madison held UNI to 114 yards, zero rushing yards and just seven first downs. The Panthers did not cross midfield until the final minutes of the game as an injury plagued unit that was without 1,000-yard receiver Isaiah Weston and preseason All-America tight end Briley Moore had no answer for the Dukes’ dominant defense.
“They played good man coverage and caused enough problems up front and we just couldn’t get anything going on offense,” UNI head coach Mark Farley.
Pressured all night by the electric James Madison duo Ron’Dell Carter and John Daka, Panther quarterback Will McElvain was held to a 12 of 30 performance for 114 yards and was sacked five times.
“Really proud of our defensive effort. It was a great defensive performance,” James Madison head coach Curt Cignetti said. “We felt we had an opportunity to shut them down defensively and we did.”
“They were disruptive ... that was evident,” Farley added of Carter and Daka.
UNI was in it until the end despite its offensive struggles, and that was primarily because of a defense that found a way to slow down James Madison’s No. 1 scoring offense. Bending yet rarely breaking, the Panthers held James Madison 27 points below its season average and nearly 100 yards below both its total offense and rushing averages.
The Panthers forced three turnovers and the Dukes missed a pair of field goals.
“We kept them in check on defense all day long,” Farley said.
Bryce Flater and Spencer Cuvelier each had more than 20 tackles as Flater recorded 22 and Cuvelier 21.
“I thought our coverage was excellent and our d-line played incredible,” Cuvelier said. “They did one heck of a job.”
James Madison got 124 yards on 33 carries and a touchdown from Percy Agyei-Obese to pace its offense. Ben DiNucci completed 19 of 28 passes for 157 yards and a touchdown.
The Dukes controlled the ball, running 88 plays to 49 for the Panthers and holding onto the ball for 42 minutes, 9 seconds of the game while out-gaining UNI 346-114.
It was just a 10-0 game late when the Panthers went for it on a fourth-and-two from their own 15. McElvain was sacked at the UNI 1, Agyei-Obese scored on the next play and the game was all but over at 17-0 with 2:19 left.
“We were in that all the way until we went for it on fourth down,” Farley said. “We win games like that all the time. That is how we got here. It was everything we came in here to do to win a close game, but they did a great job with their defense.
“It was a ballgame to the end.”
Before the late drive to the James Madison 30 with under a minute to go, UNI’s best drive came to open the second quarter as Jaylin James caught passes off 11 and 12 yards to get the Panthers out to their own 33. But it was the only time the Panthers strung back-to-back first downs together until that last drive.
“We didn’t change a whole lot,” UNI wide receiver Aaron Graham said of the halftime message. “We focused on making the plays that we should’ve made. That was our big focus at halftime. There were some uncharacteristic drops between the receivers that we should’ve made.”
It was 10-0 at the half as the Dukes got a 15-yard touchdown pass from Ben DiNucci to Brandon Polk with 4:10 left in the first quarter and Ethan Ratke connected on a 42-yard field goal with 6:39 to go to halftime.
The Panthers nearly had a big break early when it was ruled on the field that the Dukes had fumbled on their first play and UNI recovered at the James Madison 28. However, on review, the call was overturned.
It was one of two replays that went against the Panthers, including a Tyler Hoosman fumble in the second quarter. Video in the press box appeared to show Hoosman’s elbow was down before the ball came loose, but it was ruled a fumble on the field and upheld.
“Credit the officials,” Farley said. “I thought the officials did a very good job. But what was said was they lost reception on the monitors, had poor reception on what was going on so they couldn’t get a clear picture and things were breaking up. That is what he was telling me and there was nothing he could do about it.”
James Madison 17, UNI 0
Northern Iowa 0 0 0 0 — 0
James Madison 7 3 0 7 — 17
JMU — Polk 15 pass from DiNucci (Ratke kick), 4:10. (Drive: 9 plays, 66 yards, 3:49).
JMU — FG Ratke 42, 6:39. (Drive: 12 plays, 40 yards, 4:44).
JMU — Obese 1 run (Ratke kick), 2:19. (Drive: 1 play, 1 yard, :04).
Att. — 8,741.
First downs 7 21
Rushes-yards 19-0 60-189
Passing yards 114 157
Comp-att-int 12-30-0 19-28-1
Return yards 25 34
Punts-avg. 8-41.1 5-30.8
Fumbles-lost 2-2 1-1
Penalty-yards 2-30 5-45
Time of possession 17:51 42:09
UNI — T. Allen 10-17, T. Hoosman 1-8, W. McElvain 8-minus 25.
JAMES MADISON — P. Agyei-Obese 33-124, J. Hamilton 21-62, B. DiNucci 4-6, Team 2-minus 3.
UNI — W. McElvain 12-30-0, 114 yards.
JAMES MADISON — B. DiNucci 19-28-1, 157 yards.
UNI — A. Graham 4-39, J. James 3-37, T. Allen 2-15, S. Lane 2-13, B. Hadachek 1-10.
JAMES MADISON — B. Polk 7-59, D. Stapleton 4-48, S. Vanhorse 2-22, J. Hamilton 3-13, P. Agyei-Obese 2-9, R. Stapleton 1-6.
UNI — Flater 11-11-22, Cuvelier 7-14-21, Wells 3-8-11, Boyd 2-7-9, Jegen 3-4-7, Evans 3-4-7, Brinkman 2-5-7, Butcher 2-5-7, Lawrence 1-3-4, Smith 1-2-3, Brown 2-1-3, Perry 1-1-2, Williams 0-2-2, Houghtelling 0-2-2, Brekke 1-0-1, Kibby 1-0-1, Lomica 0-1-1.
JAMES MADISON — Holloway 3-5-8, Hampton 4-1-5, Robinson 2-1-3, Daka 2-1-3, Davis 2-1-3, Amos 2-1-3, Greene 2-1-3, Atariwa 0-3-3, Word 0-2-2, Carter 1-0-1, Reid 0-1-1, Tabb 1-0-1, Smith 0-1-1, Tutt 1-0-1 McCormick 1-0-1, Azanama 1-0-1, Kidwell 1-0-1.
Tackles for loss
UNI — Cuvelier 1-2, Wells 1-7, Butcher 1-1, Flater 0.5-1, Brinkman 0.5-2.
JAMES MADISON — Holloway 3.5-11, Daka 2.5-11, Greene 1-15, Carter 1-2, Azanama 1-2.
UNI — Wells 1-7.
JAMES MADISON — Daka 2-10, Greene 1-15, Holloway 1-8, Carter 1-2.
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