CEDAR FALLS — On a day its offense wasn’t at its best, the University of Northern Iowa defense more than picked up the slack.
Against a team that had scored 40 or more points in its last six games, the Panthers almost pitched a shutout in a 17-3 first-round FCS playoff win over San Diego at the UNI-Dome.
The Toreros were held nearly 300 yards below their season average of 498 yards per game, and the San Diego rush offense managed 26 yards on 28 carries.
“Playing against a team like that, that has a great offense, I was proud of the way our defense was able to play Panther defense,” said defensive end Brawntae Wells, who accounted for six of UNI’s points with a 34-yard interception return for a touchdown in the first quarter.
With its run game shut down, San Diego threw everything in its playbook at the Panthers, including three double-reverse passes that all failed.
“We played with great discipline,” senior safety Christian Jegen said. “I think the secondary played with good eyes ... the defensive line did a great job.”
UNI recorded nine tackles for loss with eight different players recording at least one TFL. The Panthers forced four turnovers while also coming up big on one huge fourth-down play that helped keep San Diego at bay.
Early in the third quarter, after a 26-yard punt return to the UNI 28, the Toreros were facing fourth-and-one at the Panther 19. Quarterback Reed Sinnett tried to plunge forward on a sneak, but defensive tackle Jared Brinkman stopped him short by a inch after a measurement.
That stop kept the game 7-3 in UNI’s favor.
“It really started off with that fourth down stop,” Panther head coach Mark Farley said of his defense’s big plays down the stretch.
With UNI’s offense struggling, Farley also credited his defense with staying composed.
“The key was our defense did not get frustrated,” Farley said. “Special teams did not get frustrated and did their job. It was a good team win.
“But, I’ve been in these situations where our defense would get frustrated at that point and lose their discipline. In this case, these guys stayed the course.”
Wells, Jegen and freshman Omar Brown recorded interceptions, and Spencer Cuvelier recovered a fumble forced by Jegen in the fourth quarter that helped seal the win.
GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS: The good news was Isaiah Weston returned to the lineup after missing UNI’s last two games.
The bad news? Weston was injured again and left the game midway through the third quarter after catching two passes for 58 yards.
“I have heard three different stories from just walking through the lockerroom,” Farley said when asked if Weston re-aggravated his previous injury or suffered a new one. “I couldn’t tell you for sure. He had ice on his ribs. He had ice on his foot and he was on crutches.
“A lot of it is precautionary, I’m sure. But we will find out more tomorrow.”
Weston was hurt after making what initially was ruled a 47-yard reception to the San Diego 3, a catch that was overturned after video review.
Weston’s two receptions put him over 1,000 yards for the season (1,040) as he became the first Panther receiver with 1,000 receiving yards in a season since Eddie Berlin in 2000.