CEDAR FALLS — After waiting 434 days to take to the field, South Dakota State was seemingly intent on making Northern Iowa wait even longer for a victory.
In a slugfest between Missouri Valley Football Conference heavyweights, the fifth-ranked Jackrabbits landed a late one-two combo to stun the No. 3 Panthers in the UNI-Dome Friday night, 24-20.
It was already a weird scene, with the Panthers kicking off a spring season opener, yes, spring, before a smattering of masked fans and a socially-distanced band.
But the night grew downright painful in the closing minutes after UNI had seemed to find its groove.
Thanks to a fumble recovery by Benny Sapp III on SDSU’s 19-yard line, which was soon followed by a Will McElvain-to-Tysen Kershaw touchdown pass, UNI grabbed a 20-17 lead midway through the fourth quarter.
But the Jackrabbits, who had mustered just eight total yards in the second half up to that point, got rolling when they needed to. Taking possession with just under 6 minutes remaining, they mounted a 75-yard drive that was capped by a pair of devastating completions.
First, facing third-and-5 from UNI’s 46, true freshman quarterback Mark Gronowski hit tight end Zach Heins for a 43-yard play after a pump-and-go route left him wide open on the left sideline.
Then, after the Panthers stuffed SDSU twice at the goal line, Gronowski took the snap with 24 seconds left and no timeouts remaining, rolled out and lobbed the ball over the rush to running back Pierre Strong Jr. in the right flat for the go-ahead score.
“They made a nice play-action play, I made a bad call and they got their touchdown,” said UNI head coach Mark Farley. “I was going for the win. We will always go for the win. That’s just who we are.”
That Gronowski was even in the game was surprising enough. The true freshman emerged from a crowded quarterback room to be named starter over two more proven Jackrabbits.
For UNI, it was a tale of two halves. The Panthers struggled to stop SDSU on the ground or the air in the first half while failing to mount much offense, as well. The Jackrabbits outgained UNI 242-67 before halftime.
The Panthers flipped the script at the break, while making only minor technical adjustments. The defense got stingy and allowed SDSU only 8 yards total through its first five drives of the second half, but that simply set the stage for the Jackrabbits’ final flurry.
As UNI’s defense found its footing, so did its offense. McElvain, the sophomore quarterback who threw for 2,778 yards and 20 TDs last season, shook off a 45-yard passing performance in the first half by using rollouts to create passing lanes in the second half. He went 13-for-19 passing for 119 yards after halftime.
“I think it was just a matter of getting out some of our early jitters,” said McElvain. “Just starting to get some completions, get into a rhythm and starting to play ball.”
McElvain’s resurgence was even more impressive given his suddenly depleted receiving corps. Preseason All-American Isaiah Weston drew two early targets then left the game with a leg injury he’d been nursing leading up to the game. He finished without a catch.
Worse yet, another standout receive, Quan Hampton, left in the third quarter with an apparent head injury after getting flipped on an attempted catch. Hampton, a transfer from Kansas University, had hauled in seven catches for 65 yards before departing.
“It was unfortunate when we lost Quan,” Farley said. “We lost Isaiah Weston ... and our starting tailback was out as well. But with COVID, like I told you, we’ll play with 11 freshmen if we have to.”
UNI’s next stop in its eight-game spring season is at Youngstown on Saturday at 11 a.m.
S. Dakota St. 24, UNI 20
South Dakota State 3 14 0 7 — 24
Northern Iowa 7 0 3 10 — 20
SDSU—Cole Frahm 25 FG, 10:16. (Drive: 8 plays, 71 yards, 4:44).
UNI—Will McElvain 7 run (Matthew Cook kick), 3:06. (Drive: 7 plays, 52 yards, 2:49).
SDSU—Jaxon Janke 6 pass from Mark Gronowski (Frahm kick), 5:15. (Drive: 7 plays, 63 yards, 3:35).
SDSU—Gronowski 5 run (Frahm kick), 1:24. (Drive: 3 plays, 5 yards, 1:33).
UNI—Cook 43 FG, 5:32. (Drive: 9 plays, 41 yards, 4:14).
UNI—Cook 35 FG, 8:35. (Drive: 4 plays, 17 yards, 1:39).
UNI—Tysen Kershaw 14 pass from McElvain (Cook kick), 5:59. (Drive: 2 plays, 19 yards, 0:49).
SDSU—Pierre Strong Jr. 1 pass from Gronowski, 0:19. (Drive: 10 plays, 75 yards, 5:40).
First downs 14 13
Rushes-yards 34-116 26-30
Passing yards 194 164
Comp-att-int 19-29-0 19-29-0
Return yards 2-33 2-12
Punts-avg. 5-40.6 7-38.3
Fumbles-lost 2-2 0-0
Penalty-yards 9-80 4-20
Time of possession 32:55 26:46
SDSU—Strong Jr. 22-91, Gronowski 10-24, Isaiah Davis 1-2.
UNI—Dom williams 14-28, McElvain 8-2, Nick McCabe 4-0.
SDSU—Gronowski 19-29-0, 194 yards, 2 TDs.
UNI—McElvain 19-29-0, 164 yards, 1 TD.
SDSU—Zach Heins 5-90, Strong Jr. 6-31, Jaxon Janke 4-29, Jadon Janke 1-20, Davis 1-18, Canyon Bauer 1-3, Michael Morgan 1-4.
UNI—Quan Hampton 7-65, Deion McShane 4-35, Tysen Kershaw 2-34, Nick Phillips 3-16, Kyle Fourtenbary 2-9, Williams 1-5.
SDSU—Logan Backhaus 5-0-5, Donald Gardner 3-2-5, Adam Bock 4-1-5, Preston Tetzlaff 5-0-5, Isaiah Stalbird 3-1-4, Graham Spalding 3-1-4, Joshua Manchigiah 2-1-3, Malik Lofton 2-0-2, Michael Griffin II 1-1-2, DyShawn Gales 2-0-2, Tolu Ogunrinde 2-0-2, Quinton Hicks 1-1-2, Reece Winkelman 2-0-2.
UNI—Korby Sander 8-5-13, Spencer Cuvelier 3-6-9, Benny Sapp III 3-4-7, Brawntae Wells 3-3-6, Eric Mooney 3-3-6, Jared Brinkman 3-2-5, Bryce Flater 3-2-5, Omar Brown 3-2-5, Isaiah Nimmers 1-1-2, Alfonzo Lambert 0-1-1, Riley Van Whye 1-0-1, Devin Rice 0-1-1, Khristian Boyd 0-1-1, Jaylin Richardson 0-1-1.
Tackles for loss
SDSU—Backhaus 2-0, Bock 1-0, Spalding 1-0, Manchigiah 1-0, Ogunrinde 2-0.
UNI—Sander 0-1, Wells 1-1, Brinkman 1-0, Brown 1-0.
SDSU — Ogunrinde 1-0, Bock 1-0.
UNI — Brinkman 1-0, Sander 0-1, Wells 0-1.