FARGO, N.D. – This one hurts for the Northern Iowa football team.
Not only did the No. 4-ranked Panthers let a 13-point lead slip away in the final quarter before falling 24-23 to top-ranked North Dakota State, they also lost their leading tackler Jake Farley.
When Farley, a junior middle linebacker, was carted off the Fargodome field with a broken leg, Northern Iowa still held a 23-17 lead with less than five minutes remaining. But the Bison, the two-time defending Football Championship Subdivision national champions, scored five plays later to take their first lead of the game with 2:52 remaining.
“The guys knew right away what happened,” UNI associate head coach Bill Salmon said of Farley’s injury. “When that happened, it was a bad deal.”
Salmon was sitting in the postgame press conference for head coach Mark Farley, who headed to a Fargo hospital to be with his son. For Farley, the all-time winningest coach in Missouri Valley Football Conference history, Saturday’s game played before 18,840 fans couldn’t have ended in a worse way, especially after it started so well.
After recovering a fumble on the game’s opening kickoff, UNI took a quick 3-0 lead on Tyler Sievertsen’s 37-yard field goal. Sievertson, a senior from Cedar Rapids, kicked a career-long 50-yard field oal to give the Panthers a 6-0 lead late in the first quarter.
It got even better for UNI when running back David Johnson broke three tackles and rumbled 85 yards for a touchdown to give the Panthers a 13-0 lead.
It looked good late in the third quarter when quarterback Sawyer Kollmorgen threw a two-yard touchdown strike to Kevin Vereen to give the Panthers a 20-10 lead. After the Bison fumbled again on the next kickoff, Sievertson booted a 36-yard field goal to give the Panthers a 23-10 lead with 3:29 left of the third quarter.
Were things looking good for the Panthers to end their two-game losing streak to the Bison?
“Yeah but, but we couldn’t get complacent,” said Johnson, who finished the game with 142 yards rushing. “We knew that they were a good team at the end. I knew we had to play the whole game.”
It didn’t help when Johnson suffered a hip-pointer in the third quarter. It limited his number of carries for the rest of the game.
“He could move fairly good, but when he got tackled, it hurt and he had to come out,” Salmon said. “He’s a big part of our running game. He’s going to be an awfully sore young man tomorrow.”
The comeback was nothing new for the Bison.
In their season-opening 24-21 win at Kansas State, the Bison overcame a two-touchdown deficit and drove 80 yards in the final minutes of the game to post the upset. The Bison had that same feeling when it got the ball back with 6:57 remaining, trailing 23-17.
They marched 76 yards in 10 plays. On a key third-down-and-six play – one play after Farley left with his broken leg – Bison quarterback Brock Jensen ran up the middle for nine yards and a first down.
After UNI cornerback Makinton Dorleant was whistled for pass interference in the end zone, the Bison had first down on UNI’s 26. Two plays later, Sam Ojuri ran up the middle for a 19-yard touchdown run to help the Bison take their 24-23 lead with 2:52 remaining.
“Nothing breeds success likes success,” said Bison head coach Craig Bohl. “Our guys had a great sense about themselves that we could come up with a drive.”
When asked if he would like to play the Bison again, Salmon responded:
“That would be nice but I’m not sure about coming back up here,” he said. “I would like to a little farther south.”
He was referring to the FCS national championship game that will be played in Frisco, Texas.