CEDAR FALLS – For the third straight week, the Northern Iowa football team had a chance to close out a Missouri Valley Conference win.
For the third straight week, the Panthers (4-3, 0-3) saw mistakes from key members of their offense in critical moments of the game.
And for the third straight week – the second of which in overtime – Northern Iowa lost a one possession game, this time a 38-31 double-overtime loss to South Dakota on Saturday in the UNI-Dome.
“It’s very frustrating. We’ve got to think before we speak and think before we act because the frustration is a huge part of it, there’s no question about that,” said Panthers Coach Mark Farley. “I’m sure (the players) are devastated, as they should be. We didn’t make plays going down the stretch of some of these games, and it’s been the difference in these games.”
Northern Iowa looked poised to break the then-two-game losing streak as late as the third quarter. The Panthers led 28-7 with 5:54 left in the third quarter, and followed up that David Johnson touchdown run with an interception of the Coyotes’ Kevin Earl.
But Sawyer Kollmorgen – who finished 13 of 23 for 190 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions – threw two of his three interceptions after gaining the three-score lead. Between that and missed coverages from the UNI secondary that allowed big plays for South Dakota (4-3, 3-1), the Coyotes were able to stay in the game.
“There were plays to be made on that field tonight that we didn’t make,” Farley said. “They hit some passes they shouldn’t have hit to get out of trouble. We had some breakdown in coverages. We didn’t do anything on offense after we got up 28-7.
“You’ve got to keep the pedal on and keep moving. And we didn’t do that. We gave them a second wind and they came back and beat us.”
With that 21-point lead, the Panthers obviously looked jovial and confident on the sidelines.
Linebacker Jordan Gacke – who assumed the role of defensive leader following the season-ending injury to linebacker Jake Farley and led the team with eight tackles Saturday – gave credit to South Dakota for fighting its way back, but didn’t shy away from his team’s blame in letting another win slip through its fingers.
“Obviously, up 28-7 – up three touchdowns – you’re going to be pretty confident,” Gacke said. “We let this one slip away.
“They made the big plays when they needed to and we didn’t. The 50-50 balls that they went up for where either we come down with it or they do, they came down with it.”
With injuries and mental mistakes, Farley had plenty to point to following the game.
But when asked if outside factors were at play in the loss on Saturday, the 13th-year head man of the Panthers wasn’t about to sugar-coat anything. The questions even brought about a rare smile in an otherwise somber postgame address.
“We can make excuses, and I appreciate (the media) giving me the opportunity to, but I’m not taking it,” Farley said. “Because we’ve just got to line up and play. There’s guys that are on the field and when you strap it on and go on the field and it’s your turn to make the play, that’s what they’ve got to do.
“It’s part of this game, man. It’s ‘Next guy in.’ He’s got to perform and he’s got to perform well.”
After such an emotional trio of games, Farley acknowledged that the problems facing Northern Iowa are both physical and mental at this point.
Going forward, to be able to turn the season back around both the players and Farley said the team must refocus and get back to what made them a top-five team in the FCS. Farley and Gacke both stressed the Panthers are capable of doing so – “We’re not dead,” – but acknowledged it wouldn’t be a walk in the park.
“There’s no easy way. This is just putting your head down and grinding right now,” Farley said. “You’ve just got to go back to work and find out what you did wrong. You’ve just got to stay with them … and I’ll stay with them to the bitter end.
“They’ve just got to finish some of this stuff. Finish the plays, finish the quarters and finish the drives.”