CEDAR FALLS — It was a shutdown defensive effort by the University of Northern Iowa defense.
The sixth-ranked Panthers needed it.
With its offense struggling to make plays, UNI got a defensive touchdown and forced four turnovers to advance to the second round of the FCS playoffs with a 17-3 win over San Diego Saturday at the UNI-Dome.
UNI (9-4) moves on to play South Dakota State (8-4) next Saturday in Brookings, S.D.
“That was just good defensive football,” said Panther head coach Mark Farley. “Credit San Diego. I thought they did an exceptional job, had a tremendous plan.”
Brawntae Wells returned an interception 34 yards for a touchdown on the Toreros’ first possession, and UNI picked off two more passes while also recovering a fumble. The Panthers held San Diego 38 points below its season average and to just 213 total yards, 285 below average.
It was the first time the Toreros (9-3) were held without a touchdown since losing to North Dakota State, 38-3, in the second round of the 2017 playoffs.
“Obviously, we didn’t come here to lose the game,” San Diego head coach Dale Lindsey said. “We played well in spurts. I thought we played exceptionally well. They did an admirable job for 60 minutes and that is all we ever ask them to do.”
UNI harassed San Diego quarterback and Johnston native Reid Sinnett all game, holding Sinnett to 22 of 37 passing for a season-low 187 yards and the three picks. Sinnett came into the game ranked fifth in the nation in total offense (319.5).
“Hats off to them,” Sinnett said. “They did an excellent job of mixing their coverage. It was a challenging game across the board, but I could have done more to put us in better position.”
Offensively, UNI managed just 266 of its own yards as it hurt itself with untimely turnovers, drops and penalties.
“We weren’t very good on offense,” Farley said. “No. 1, give San Diego credit for how they played. No. 2, very frustrated and disappointed in our offense and that we weren’t better.”
It was 7-3 at halftime, and UNI increased its advantage to 10-3 with its best offensive drive to open the fourth quarter.
Starting on their own 10, a 27-yard screen to Trevor Allen got the Panthers out of the shadow of their end zone. Quarterback Will McElvain ran for another first down and completed first-down passes to Jaylin James and Suni Lane to set up a 39-yard Matthew Cook field goal with 8 minutes, 25 seconds left in the game.
From there the defense took over.
San Diego gained its first first down of the second half with 8:07 left in the fourth, but on a third-and-three play, Jared Brinkman sacked Sinnett to force a punt. On the Toreros’ next two possessions, UNI forced turnovers.
The first was a Jegen interception he returned 52 yards to the Torero 7-yard line. On the next play, Allen scored for a 17-3 lead.
On the first play after the Allen touchdown, Jegen jarred loose the football after a reception by San Diego tight end Zach Nelson that was recovered by Spencer Cuvelier.
“He started it (pointing to Brawntae Wells), and he finished it (motioning at Jegen),” Farley said.
The game started off tremendously for the Panthers.
San Diego won the coin toss and elected to receive.
With six defensive linemen on the field in a short-yardage situation on the Toreros’ first possession, Wells faked like he was going to rush and then dropped into the flat. Sinnett never saw him and Wells jumped the out route and returned the interception 34 yards to give the Panthers a 7-0 lead just 1:58 into the game.
“It was my responsibility (to cover the flat), but I also knew that is his favorite receiver (No. 5 Michael Bandy) and I put myself in great position,” Wells said.
The Panthers had a golden opportunity late in the second quarter to extend their lead after a 52-yard bomb from McElvain to Isaiah Weston got UNI to the Toreros’ 12-yard line.
However, on a second-down play, McElvain fumbled and San Diego recovered. The Toreros took the turnover and drove 73 yards in 13 plays for a Brandon Eickert 33-yard field goal with 10 seconds left to halftime.
In the end, it wasn’t perfect, but the Panthers now get another crack at South Dakota State.
“I think we didn’t perform to the level we are capable of the last time and we have a chip on our shoulder and something to prove,” said Jegen.
UNI 17, San Diego 3
San Diego 0 3 0 0 — 3
Northern Iowa 7 0 0 10 — 17
UNI — Wells 34 interception return (Cook kick), 13:02.
USD — FG Eickert 33, 0:10. (Drive: 13 plays, 73 yards, 3:24).
UNI — FG Cook 39, 8:25. (Drive: 13 plays, 68 yards, 6:35).
UNI — Allen 7 run (Cook kick), 2:54. (Drive: 1 play, 7 yards, :03).
Att. — 3,743.
First downs 10 13
Rushes-yards 28-26 34-82
Passing yards 187 186
Comp-att-int 22-37-3 13-27-0
Return yards 102 37
Punts-avg. 7-38.7 8-36.9
Fumbles-lost 1-1 4-1
Penalty-yards 5-43 8-81
Time of possession 31:08 28:52
SAN DIEGO — J. Binda Jr. 12-20, E. Martinez 3-5, M. Bandy 1-2, R. Sinnett 11-0, A. Spadone 1-minus 1.
UNI — T. Allen 17-46, W. McElvain 12-34, S. Schnee 2-4, Team 3-minus 2.
SAN DIEGO — R. Sinnett 22-36-3, 187 yards, M. Bandy 0-1-0.
UNI — W. McElvain 13-27-0, 186 yards.
SAN DIEGO — E. Martinez 6-71, D. Kincaid 6-63, A. Spadone 5-23, Z. Nelson 2-18, M. Bandy 3-12.
UNI — I. Weston 2-58, A. Graham 4-45, S. Lane 3-29, T. Allen 1-28, J. James 2-19, L. Wolf 1-7.
SAN DIEGO — Vaivao 11-3-14, Kamaka 3-4-7, Bergstrom 4-1-5, Johnson 3-1-4, Lopez 4-0-4, Nichols 2-2-4, Dan. Tolbert 1-2-3, Hawkins 2-0-2, Friedel 1-1-2, Kapapa 1-1-2, Bandy 1-0-1, Dav. Tolbert 1-0-1, Wallace 1-0-1, Haney 1-0-1,Leau 1-0-1, Wilson 0-1-1, Team 1-0-1.
UNI — Flater 5-5-10, Jegen 2-5-7, Kolarevic 5-2-7, Evans 2-3-5, Boyd 2-3-5, Cuvelier 3-1-4, Lawrence 2-1-3, Smith 1-2-3, Brown 2-1-3, Brinkman 3-0-3, Houghtelling 2-1-3, Perry 0-2-2, Williams 2-0-2, Van Wyhe 0-2-2, Butcher 1-1-2, Kibby 1-0-1, Wells 0-1-1, Cook 1-0-1.
Tackles for loss
SAN DIEGO — Vaivao 2.5-5, Kamaka 2.5-6, Bergstrom 1-4, Team 1-4.
UNI — Flater 1.5-2, Kolarevic 1.5-1, Smith 1.5-5, Brinkman 1-7, Houghtelling 1-1, Butcher 1-1, Jegen 0.5-1, Boyd 0.5-2, Wells 0.5-2.
SAN DIEGO — none.
UNI — Brinkman 1-7, Houghtelling 1-1, Boyd 0.5-2, Wells 0.5-2.