Football comes up short on Senior Day to Northern Iowa

No.+3+Timothy+Smith+and+No.+31+Luke+Otto+look+away+from+the+action+in+disappointment+while+Northern+Iowa+runs+out+the+clock+in+the+4th+quarter+of+Western%E2%80%99s+30-23+loss+Saturday.

Jake Thompson

No. 3 Timothy Smith and No. 31 Luke Otto look away from the action in disappointment while Northern Iowa runs out the clock in the 4th quarter of Western’s 30-23 loss Saturday.

Adam Feiner

Once again, the Western Illinois football team fell behind early. And once again, the Leathernecks staged a second-half rally that put them in a position to steal a win at the end. However, the Northern Iowa Panthers did enough on both sides of the ball to knock off Western, 30-23, on Senior Day.

Northern Iowa dominated the opening quarter in every facet of the game. Quarterback Eli Dunne was 5-of-6 through the air for 50 yards to get the Panthers into the red zone. The visitors capped the 11-play, 78-yard drive with a 2-yard touchdown run by Michael Malloy.

The Western offense had just 30 yards in the first quarter, with Northern Iowa dominating the time of possession, 10:30 to 4:30.

“At the end of the day, you have to give credit to them being a very good defensive football team,” said Western head coach Charlie Fisher. “We weren’t executing, and they were collapsing the pocket on Sean. We weren’t able to find a rhythm.”

The second quarter was much more even between the two squads. The Panthers padded their lead with another touchdown midway through the second. UNI converted four third downs on the 12-play, 50-yard drive. Dunne finished the drive with a 9-yard pitch and catch to wide receiver Logan Cunningham. However, Western’s Timothy Smith blocked the extra point attempt to make it 13-0 Panthers.

The Leathernecks got on the board on the following drive. The offense marched into the red zone for the first time, but couldn’t end the drive in the end zone. Senior Nathan Knuffman drilled a 29-yard field goal with under a minute left in the first half to cut the deficit to 11.

Western couldn’t keep the momentum as the second half started. Northern Iowa took full advantage of a three-and-out. A 51-yard strike from Dunne to Jalen Rima up the Western sideline put the Panthers at the Leatherneck 3-yard line. On the next play, Dunne hit Daurice Fountain on a well-thrown fade ball to give UNI a 20-3 lead.

Once again, the Leathernecks answered back, this time with their first touchdown of the game. A gutsy 17-play, 75-play drive that eclipsed eight minutes of game clock resulted in a 2-yard touchdown pass from Sean McGuire to Isaiah Lesure. However, UNI’s Schult blocked Knuffman’s extra point attempt to keep the score at 20-9.

The Panthers had a couple of chances to put the dagger in the Leathernecks. A fumble by McGuire at his own 19-yard line gave UNI possession in the red zone with 2:18 left in the third quarter.

On third and goal at the Western 3-yard line, Eric Carrera intercepted Dunne in the end zone. It was Carrera’s first career pick, and kept Western afloat.

However, the Leathernecks would give the Panthers another short field on the following drive. McGuire was sacked and stripped by UNI linebacker Rickey Neal, and D’Shawn Dexter recovered for the Panthers at the Western 24-yard line.

Five plays later, Michael Mallory beat everyone to the edge for a 6-yard touchdown rush to make it 27-9 Northern Iowa with 7:34 left.

Western did rush down the field in a hurry on the next drive to make things interesting. The Leathernecks traveled 80 yards in just a minute and 22 seconds, capped off by a 9-yard touchdown catch by senior Lance Lenoir with 6:08 left in the fourth.

Western attempted an onside kick, but Mallory recovered. The Panthers ate up nearly five minutes of clock, and with 1:58 left, tacked on a 21-yard field goal by Sam Drysdale.

The Leathernecks did rally to get back within striking distance. A fast and furious two-minute drill resulted in a 14-yard touchdown pass from McGuire to Lesure to make it 30-23 UNI with 25 seconds left. However, the Panthers recovered the ensuing onside kick to pick up their fifth win of the season.

Western drops to 6-4 on the season, and 3-4 in Missouri Valley Football Conference play. They will travel to Carbondale next Saturday in a must-win scenario if the Leathernecks want to go to the FCS playoffs for the second straight season.

“We hold the keys to the car,” said middle linebacker Brett Taylor. “We just have to drive it.”

“I take great pride in our team being ready on the road,” Fisher said. “We’ve won four already, and we’ll have to win a fifth to get where we want to go. We know what the stakes are. I know my football team. We won’t stick our head in the sand. We’re going to rise up and battle through adversity.”

Twitter: @NobodyFeiner