CEDAR FALLS — The University of Northern Iowa football team has a championship-caliber defense.
That was evident Saturday when the Panthers shut down one of nation’s top offenses in a 17-3 first-round playoff victory over San Diego at the UNI-Dome that moved UNI into the second round for the third consecutive season.
The offense, on the other hand, never found any rhythm.
And if the Panthers want to avenge a regular-season loss to South Dakota State Saturday in Brookings, S.D., the offense has to find its mojo.
“The offense did not perform to the level we need our offense to perform,” UNI head coach Mark Farley said. “A little bit of that was San Diego. A lot to us not executing the way we need to execute.”
Self-inflicted wounds hurt UNI often in Saturday’s win.
While the Panther offensive line did not give up any sacks, it could not get a consistent push to get the ground game going. Meanwhile, quarterback Will McElvain and his receiving crew struggled to stay in sync as there were multiple drops and errant throws as UNI managed just 268 total yards and was just 1 of 12 on third downs.
That problem magnified when standout wide receiver Isaiah Weston left the game midway through the third quarter after being re-injured while making an outstanding catch that was overturned after video review. Weston was playing for the first time since injuring his foot against Indiana State.
“I don’t know what I want to say, but he was trying to go above and beyond what he was capable of doing,” Farley said, “He was not 100 percent. That catch, and that was a catch and if not I thought it was pass interference, it was a tremendous effort to do that and he put it all on the line.
“He is a difference-maker. I hope we get him back.”
Weston finished with two catches for 58 yards, surpassing the 1,000-yard receiving mark in the process, just the 10th Panther to do so in a single season.
Without Weston on the field, UNI’s offense has struggled to be consistent.
In 11 games, Weston has averaged 25.37 yards per catch and 94.55 receiving yards per game. Without him, the Panthers have no receiver averaging more than 31.43 receiving yards per game and that number belongs to Deion McShane. McShane has played in just seven games, including a limited role Saturday as he continues to work back from a knee injury suffered at North Dakota State.
“You can see our offense is different when he is in there,” Farley said of Weston.
— Farley is now 16-11 all-time in the FCS playoffs and ranks fourth in FCS playoff wins behind Jim Tressel of Youngstown State (23), Jerry Moore of Appalachian St. (22) and Chris Klieman of North Dakota State (18).
— McElvain has now thrown for 2,540 yards and has broken former Panther Sawyer Kollmorgen’s Missouri Valley Football Conference freshman record for passing yards in a single season.
— Christian Jegen’s 52-yard interception return in the fourth quarter to set up Trevor Allen’s seven-yard touchdown run was the longest in UNI postseason history.
— UNI has 95 tackles for loss this season, which is fourth in program history and just two behind the 2005 team’s 97.
— Defensive end Brawntae Wells scored his second career touchdown when he returned an interception for a touchdown in the first quarter against the Toreros. Wells returned a fumble for a touchdown last season at South Dakota.
— The three points UNI gave up to San Diego was the first time in program playoff history that an opposing team has failed to score a touchdown.
— The Panthers will finish 7-0 inside the UNI-Dome, which is the 11th time since the Dome was built in 1976 that UNI has been perfect at home. The Panthers went unbeaten in 1985 (7-0), 1990 (6-0), 1991 (6-0), 1992 (8-0), 1993 (6-0), 1996 (8-0), 1999 (6-0), 2000 (5-0), 2001 (6-0), 2004 (7-0) and 2010 (6-0).