By Rob Gray
AMES — It was Johnson and Johnson.
Northern Iowa’s star running back David Johnson, that is.
He deserved three up-front mentions — and one more.
The former Clinton standout who nearly beat Iowa State two years ago, finished the job Saturday at Jack Trice Stadium, racking up 240 all-purpose yards and a program-tying record four touchdowns as the FCS Panthers beat the Big 12 Cyclones, 28-20, before a stunned sellout crowd of 56,800.
“He had a great night,” said ISU coach Paul Rhoads, whose team failed to win a season opener for the first time in his five years at the helm. “He’s a great player; he’s a Big 12 talented back and there’s no question about that.”
Another unassailable truth: UNI (1-0) was better than the Cyclones (0-1) Saturday night, and not just on the scoreboard.
The Panthers scored touchdowns on their first three possessions while opening up a 21-7 lead against ISU’s largely young and fully flummoxed defenders.
Their offensive line opened bigger holes and their defensive line filled the smaller ones created by a patchwork — thanks to center Tom Farniok’s first-half right knee injury — ISU offensive front.
The Cyclones’ vaunted and deep backfield averaged 3.8 yards per carry.
A heady 8.7.
“In open space he’s shifty,” said ISU safety Deon Broomfield, who forced and recovered a third-quarter fumble at the UNI 20-yard line that could have breathed lots of life into his team, but didn’t. “He can lower his shoulder. He’s tough.”
Still, the Cyclones had opportunities — and quarterback Sam Richardson threw for 242 yards and two touchdowns, one each to leading receiver Justin Coleman and tailback James White.
ISU went 3-for-3 in red zone scoring chances, but two of those conversions were short Cole Netten field goals that decreased ISU’s deficit from 21-14 to 21-20 with 4:19 left in the third quarter.
One of those kicks followed Broomfield’s big takeaway.
More was needed.
Finishing, again, appears to be an issue for the Cyclones’ offense.
“We preach ‘Faster Family’ and the ‘F’ in ‘Faster’ is for ‘finish,’” said ISU running back James White, whose 7-yard touchdown catch late in the first half pulled his team within 21-14. “We’ve just got to finish drives. (Offensive coordinator Courtney) Messingham talks about that all the time. Especially in this league, the Big 12. There’s teams out there scoring 40 points, you know? What did we have, 20 points? We have to get more than that, man. That wasn’t enough. I feel like we left some points out there on the field.”
Backfield mate Jeff Woody counted 20.
Granted, he said, Six would have been on 49- and 54-yard field goals missed by Edwin Arceo, but …
“We need to fix the mistakes that caused those issues,” Woody said. “Once that happens, we’ll be fine.”
Similar fixer-uppers cropped up on defense, but the second-quarter insertion of redshirt freshman Luke Knott into the linebacker corps appeared to help solve some of those.
“That first series, he came in and had a pass breakup,” Broomfield said. “I think he did a great job. I’m looking forward to seeing what he can bring if he stays up with the ones with us.”
Still, three of the top four Cyclone tacklers, in terms of quantity, were defensive backs.
Sam Richardson, who started at right cornerback because Jansen Watson violated team rules, Rhoads said, had 13.
Linebacker and glorified nickelback Jared Brackens posted 10, safety Jacques Washington notched nine and newbie cornerback Charlie Rogers had seven.
When asked where the defense needed to improve most, Broomfield didn’t blink.
“Tackling,” he said. “That’s it.”
Broomfield forced and recovered another fumble, too — with 1:44 left.
Johnson lost it, but it came at the ISU one-yard line and the Cyclones failed to advance it past the 23.
It’s the one thing that, despite what ISU’s players and coaches had to say, prevented Johnson from having a “great” game.
“It’s a great performance had he not fumbled,” said UNI coach Mark Farley, who beat ISU for the second time in the past four meetings.
Settle on very, very, very, very good, then.
One ‘very’ for each touchdown.
“He’s got size, he’s got strength, he’s got speed,” Rhoads said. “Bounced to where holes were and a lot of times those holes were where our guys were supposed to be and they weren’t. That’s what we’ll tighten down (in film sessions) as we move forward.”
FARNIOK UPDATE: After the game, Rhoads said the injury, which looked scary, may not be that serious. “I think he’ll be OK,” Rhoads said. “ACL was fine so it will not be a season-ending type of injury. Were very thankful, he had his knee brace, he was wearing (it), and it most definitely saved him, his ACL.”
FCS RISING … AGAIN: Northern Iowa joined at least four other FCS teams to beat higher profile, FBS programs this weekend. First, MVC rival North Dakota State powered past Kansas State late Friday night. Eastern Washington (over a ranked Oregon State team), McNeese State and Eastern Illinois shared the beat-the-big-boys spotlight Saturday with UNI.
And another MVC team, Southern Illinois, nearly upset Illinois before falling 42-34.
“Our conference is very strong,” Panthers coach Mark Farley said.
So is the “subdivision.”
COLEMAN PROVING WORTH: It’s one thing for former Division II Nebraska-Omaha player Justin Coleman to earn a roster spot with the Cyclones.
He also was awarded a scholarship on the eve of the start of fall camp — and for good reason.
Coleman, a senior, started at receiver Saturday and scored a 59-yard touchdown.
He ended up at ISU because the Mavericks dropped their football program and he finished Saturday with four catches for a game-high 103 yards.
“Obviously wish (the game) had turned out differently, but it was great to be back out on the field,” Coleman said.
REALLY STRONG SAFETY: Broomfield replaced graduated Durrell “Pig” Givens at strong safety and picked up where he left off.
Givens recovered an FBS-best six fumbles in 2012.
Broomfield forced and fell on two in one game.
The first, at the UNI 20, could have led to a touchdown, but the Cyclones settled for a field goal.
“We just didn’t capitalize off of it,” Broomfield said. “That contributes to what happened.”
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