Seeing Joe Flacco quarterback the Baltimore Ravens into the Super Bowl Sunday night made me remember a Saturday afternoon in the UNI-Dome a little more than five years ago.
CEDAR FALLS – His name is Joe Flacco. Remember it, because he broke UNI’s heart Saturday.
Remember it, too, because you might see him in the NFL next year.
Flacco passed for 312 yards and was a magician on third downs as No.-13 Delaware stunned the top-ranked Panthers, 39-27, in the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs in the UNI-Dome.
Flacco , a 6-foot-6 senior with a rifle arm, won his duel with UNI quarterback Eric Sanders and lifted the Blue Hens (10-3) into the semifinals next week.
Northern Iowa suffered its first and only loss of the season and retired with a 12-1 mark, falling short of its season-long goal of winning the national title.
“We made no bones about it,” said UNI Coach Mark Farley. “Anything short of a championship would be disappointing for this team. And it is.”
The Panthers were ranked No.-1 for six weeks and seeded No.-1 for the playoffs, but Flacco one-upped them.
He threw two touchdown passes but actually did his best work on clutch third-down plays.
The Blue Hens converted 13 of 20 times on third down and once on fourth down, making them 14 of 21 when they needed to keep drives alive.
Flacco began his college career at Pittsburgh of the Big East Conference, but didn’t get to play and switched to Delaware.
“He was an awesome kid then, and he’s awesome now,” said UNI receiver Terrell Allen, who also began his career at Pitt and was Flacco’s teammate.
He was still crying 15 minutes later.
“It was the last time walking off the field in this uniform,” he said. “It’s going to hurt. It’s going to hurt for a long time.”
Sanders hit 26 of 38 passes for 291 yards and one touchdown but got stripped of the ball and fumbled on a key possession early in the fourth quarter with the Panthers trailing, 29-20. Symbolically on a sad day for UNI, his final pass as a Panther was picked off with 8 seconds left, snapping a streak of 138 throws without an interception.
Northern Iowa lost the turnover battle, 3-0, after enjoying a huge edge in that department all season. The killer came in the second quarter, when Delaware linebacker Erik Johnson picked up a fumble by Victor Williams after a completed pass and raced 55 yards for a touchdown to give the Blue Hens a 19-10 lead.
Northern Iowa rallied and took a 20-19 lead on a 7-yard run by Corey Lewis in the third quarter, but it didn’t last. Delaware scored 13 straight points on a field goal, a 15-yard touchdown by Omar Cuff and another field goal for a 32-20 advantage.
The Panthers pulled within 32-27 on a 4-yard touchdown pass from Sanders to Austin Howard with 5:41 left. There was plenty of time, but Flacco never gave UNI a chance.
He converted a big 3rd-and-11 pass and ended a 55-yard drive with a 1-yard sneak for the clinching score with 41 seconds left.
“We just ran out of magic, I guess,” said Sanders, who rallied UNI to 12 victories during his record-setting career.
Northern Iowa jumped to a 10-0 lead and had the Blue Hens rattled, thanks in part to a noisy crowd that packed the Dome, but Delaware settled down and got back in the game.
Flacco was the difference.
“He kept that team together,” said Delaware Coach K.C. Keeler, who beat UNI in the playoffs for the second time in five years. “He absolutely kept our team together. For a time, I thought they might run us out of town.”
Flacco had to lean over and shout in his blockers’ ears at the line of scrimmage to be heard at times, but he kept the Blue Hens on the move.
“The atmosphere was insane,” Flacco said. “It was as much fun as I’ve had all year to play somewhere.”
Cuff, who’s set an FCS record this year with 38 touchdowns, carried the ball 28 times for 102 yards and caught seven passes for 59 yards.
He had a big hand on many of those third-down conversions, bulling for an extra yard to keep the chains and the clock moving.
Lewis had a slightly better day for UNI in the stat department, rushing 20 times for 150 yards and two touchdowns and catching seven passes for 63 yards.
Delaware will face Southern Illinois (12-1) in the semifinals next weekend.
(Delaware beat SIU, then lost to Appalachian State in the national-title game.)
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