Throughout No. 7-ranked Illinois State's three-game winning streak entering Saturday's matchup with No. 9-ranked Northern Iowa, key forced turnovers combined with an efficient rushing attack proved key to the Redbirds' success.
Despite forcing two turnovers, the defense of the Panthers bottled-up ISU for just 75 rushing yards in their 27-10 victory at Hancock Stadium.
"Congratulations to Northern Iowa," ISU head coach Brock Spack said. "They made plays in critical situations, more than we did. We had our moments in the game and we came up short."
ISU senior running back James Robinson, who came into the contest as the Missouri Valley Football Conference rushing leader with 924 total rushing yards (115.5 yards per game), mustered just 39 rushing yards on 16 attempts. Much was the same last year for Robinson against the Panthers, as he managed just 40 rushing yards in that game. Entering the game Saturday, UNI ranked second in the MVFC in rushing defense, allowing 120.2 yards per game.
"Their front seven is pretty good," Spack said. "They're good players. They do a good job of walking the safety in and out. They're good up front, and their front seven is very formidable. It's the Missouri Valley. Everybody who are good teams have good fronts."
Not only this, but the Panthers forced four turnovers, three of which came in a span of four plays in the fourth quarter deep inside ISU territory. After redshirt freshman quarterback Will McElvain connected with Suni Lane for a 27-yard touchdown to make it 21-10 with 11:00 left in the game, the Panthers picked-off ISU quarterback Brady Davis on the next play from scrimmage.
"Huge," Spack said when asked how much of a game-changer turnovers were. "We knew that coming in they were very good at takeaways. Their turnover margin leads the league, and we knew we needed to take care of the football. We didn't do a great job of that today, that costed us at the end."
Not too long after, Matthew Cook knocked in a 23-yard field goal to make it 24-10 with 8:31 left. Cook added a 33-yard field goal shortly after following a Kacper Rutkiewicz fumble and recovery by the Panthers.
Davis was intercepted for the third time just two plays later, setting the Panthers up for another field goal attempt. This time, Cook's 37-yard attempt was wide right. Davis finished the game going 13 for 28 for 135 yards and a touchdown.
The lone bright spot for the 'Birds came in the third quarter, as a muffed punt by UNI punt returner Xavior Williams was recovered by Dylan Drake, setting the 'Birds up at the UNI 17-yard line. The defense of the Panthers held strong, however, forcing a 34-yard Sam Fenlason field goal to make it 14-10 with 0:49 remaining in the third period.
Outside of the fourth quarter, a key turning point in the game came late in the second quarter in a 7-7 tie. An ISU drive was halted by Davis' first interception, leading to another McElvain to Lane connection, this time for 16 yards to give them a 14-7 lead heading int the halftime break.
"Obviously we don't want to do that, but it's still a one score game," Spack said. "You don't want to throw the ball across your body, across the field late. That's a cardinal sin. He (Davis) learned the hard way. He made a mistake, he can't throw the ball across the middle of the field late like that. It's going to be an interception against a good team."
McElvain finished the game going 14 for 28 for 189 yards and three touchdowns. He was also picked-off once in the first quarter by junior defensive back Devin Taylor. His first touchdown pass was to Jaylin James from 11-yards out to give the Panthers a 7-0 lead with 3:28 left in the first quarter.
The Panthers (6-3, 4-1) out-gained the 'Birds (6-3, 3-2) 320-210 in total yards in the contest, and dominated the time of possession 35:15-24:45.
"We still have our goals in front of us," junior defensive end Romeo McKnight said. "We have a good team in South Dakota State next week, so we can't dwell on this too much. We got to look at what we did wrong, move on and get ready for South Dakota State."