NORMAL, Ill. — Northern Iowa wanted to make a statement Saturday.
In somewhat of a make or break game at seventh-ranked Illinois State, the ninth-ranked Panthers did exactly that with a convincing, 27-10 win over the Redbirds in an FCS top 10 and Missouri Valley Football Conference showdown at Hancock Stadium.
Will McElvain threw three touchdown passes and the UNI defense forced three Illinois State turnovers in four plays in the second half to improve to 6-3 overall and 4-1 in the MVFC.
“It means a lot,” safety Christian Jegen said. “We’ve had trouble on the road the past few years. We knew coming into November that this was a time to prove that we could win road games, and not just games in the Dome.
“It proves that this team is coming together, playing strong and playing good.”
It was a complete team effort.
After a slow start where he missed his first six passes, McElvain finished 14 of 28 for 189 yards and three scores, while the defense held Illinois State’s potent offense to just 210 yards and only 75 rushing yards. It’s the fifth opponent the Panther defense has held under 100 rushing yards this season.
“It was a very good football game against a very good football team,” UNI head coach Mark Farley said. “What I’m most pleased about is ... just our consistency in play. Our defense was very good, and our offense had explosive plays through the game that were timely.
“Just another great team win.”
The game turned on a dime in the third quarter with UNI clinging to a seven-point lead.
A muffed punt gave Illinois State (5-3, 3-2) the ball at the Panthers’ 30, but UNI held the Redbirds to a field goal.
Shortly after that, McElvain made the play of the game.
With an eight-play drive in danger of stalling with a third-and-seven at the ISU 27, two Redbirds hit McElvain in the backfield as he dropped back to pass. However, the elusive freshman skipped out of the first tackle, looked downfield and found a wide open Suni Lane for a 27-yard touchdown and a 21-10 lead
“The first guy had a pretty good hold on me,” McElvain said. “I spun out of it, and the second guy never had a good grip on me. I was just trying to stay on me feet and then I got out of there and got my eyes downfield.”
“That was Will all the way,” added Lane. “He is slippery. Real slippery. He was able to break those tackles, scrambled and when he did I knew what to do. We work on the scramble drill every day in practice. I had a vertical, but broke it to a corner and Will made a great throw.”
UNI’s defense took over from there, forcing three Redbird turnovers in the next four plays.
Jegen and Omar Brown had interceptions, and Xavior Williams recovered a fumble forced by Roosevelt Lawrence that led to a pair of Matthew Cook field goals.
“It becomes fun at that point,” Jegen said. “You get three straight turnovers, and the offense gets us points ... that was just a dagger for them.”
Through 30 minutes it was the tight game everyone expected with UNI leading 14-7. In fact, it was 7-7 until the Panthers pulled off a pair of big plays in the closing minutes of the half.
The first of Brown’s two interceptions gave UNI the ball at the ISU 47 with 58 seconds left to half. An 18-yard pass to Aaron Graham got UNI to the Redbird 16. Two plays later, Lane leaped high into the air to snare a McElvain pass for a touchdown with 11 seconds left to halftime.
“That was huge,” Farley said. “A tough catch in the back of the end zone. It had to be placed perfectly. A great throw. A great catch.”
After going nowhere on its opening two drives, UNI scored first as a 34-yard pass from McElvain to Weston reached the ISU 25-yard line. On third-and-six from the Redbird 11, Jaylin James found a soft spot over the middle to haul in his third touchdown catch of the season with 3:28 left in the first quarter.
The play was open because the Redbirds were keying on Weston, who for the first time in seven games was held out of the end zone as he ended with five catches for 68 yards.
“The safety was trying to toy with us and go to the middle,” McElvain said. “On the snap he shot back over (toward Weston, running a fade to the corner) and the field safety was outside of Jaylin so we had leverage on him and that was my first read.”
The Redbirds immediately responded with a nine-play, 66-yard drive with Baxton Haley making a tremendous catch for a four-yard score just four seconds into the second quarter.
The Redbirds had a chance to take the lead in the second quarter after Devin Taylor picked off McElvain at the Panther 36, but on a fourth-and-one play at the UNI 27, Brown shed a tackler at the line of scrimmage and tackled James Robinson for a one-yard loss.
All the big plays added up to UNI’s most complete game with three games left in its season, including next Saturday at home against Indiana State.
“The offense was good. The defense was good. Everyone’s mindset now is just to keep pushing forward and doing what we are doing and that is working,” Jegen stated.
UNI 27, Illinois St. 10
Northern Iowa 7 7 0 13 — 27
Illinois St. 0 7 3 0 — 10
UNI — James 11 pass from McElvain (Cook kick), 3:28. (Drive: 7 plays, 61 yards, 3:28).
ISU — Haley 4 pass from Davis (Fenlason kick), 14:56. (Drive: 9 plays, 66 yardds, 3:24).
UNI — Lane 16 pass from McElvain (Cook kick), 0:11. (Drive: 5 plays, 47 yards, :42).
ISU — FG Fenlason 34, 0:49. (Drive: 7 plays, 13 yards, 3:18).
UNI — Lane 27 pass from McElvain (Cook kick), 11:00. (Drive: 9 plays, 65 yards, 4:49).
UNI — FG Cook 23, 8:31. (Drive: 4 plays, 3 yards, 2:11).
UNI — FG Cook 33, 5:48. (Drive: 4 plays, 9 yards, 2:25).
Att. — 6,705.
First downs 17 10
Rushes-yards 41-131 26-75
Passing yards 189 135
Comp-att-int 14-28-1 13-28-3
Return yards 28 96
Punts-avg. 6-37.7 6-40.0
Fumbles-lost 1-1 1-1
Penalty-yards 5-30 4-30
Time of possession 35:15 24:45
UNI — N. McCabe 15-44, T. Hoosman 11-35, W. McElvain 10-35, T. Allen 5-17.
ILLINOIS ST. — J. Robinson 16-39, J. Proctor 6-34, K. Rutkiewicz 1-2, B. Davis 2-1.
UNI — McElvain 14-28-1, 189 yards.
ILLINOIS ST. — Davis 13-28-3, 135 yards.
UNI — I. Weston 5-68, A. Graham 5-58, S. Lane 2-43, J. James 1-11, T. Allen 1-9.
ILLINOIS ST. — B. Haley 6-52, K. Rutkiewicz 2-31, A. Nagel 2-26, T. Taula 2-17, C. Blackman 1-9.
UNI — Brinkman 5-2-7, Lawrence 5-1-6, Perry 4-1-5, Brown 4-1-5, Kolarevic 3-2-5, Evans 1-3-4, Williams 2-1-3, Thomas 1-2-3, Flater 1-2-3, Van Wyhe 1-0-1, Mooney 1-0-1, Hadachek 1-0-1, Butcher 1-0-1, Kibby 0-1-1, Jegen 0-1-1, Schultz 0-1-1.
ILLINOIS ST. — Kirk 8-2-10, McKnight 6-3-9, Draka 6-1-7, DeForest 5-2-7, Uphoff 4-1-5, Mends 2-3-5, Washington 4-0-4, Ridgeway 2-1-3, Vandenburgh 2-1-3, Simon 2-0-2, Jones 1-1-2, Davis 1-0-1, Haley 1-0-1, Brown 1-0-1, Taylor 1-0-1, Bresnahan 1-0-1, Podkulski 0-1-1, Robinson 0-1-1, Woods 0-1-1, Woods 0-1-1, Hatfield 0-1-1, Bones 0-1-1.