In a November battle that could well decide the playoff fortunes of both teams, Northern Iowa dominated the second half and came away 27-10 winners of Illinois State in Normal.
The victory by the ninth-ranked Panthers over the seventh-ranked Redbirds was deemed as "a statement win" on the UNI athletic website. It was also the first Northern Iowa triumph over Illinois State at Hancock Stadium since 2011.
With the win, Northern Iowa upped its record to 6-3 overall and 4-1 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. The Panthers will certainly move up in the national rankings.
Illinois State, which had rebounded with three straights wins following a lopsided home loss to No. 1-rated North Dakota State Oct. 5, dropped to 6-3 overall and 3-2 in the league standings.
"Northern Iowa made plays in critical situations more than we did," ISU head coach Brock Spack said in the postgame.
Here are three things we learned from the Redbirds' loss:
1. Lack of a running game severely limited Illinois State.
The Redbirds managed just 75 rushing yards on 26 attempts (2.9 average). Senior running back James Robinson, who entered the game as the conference's leading rusher, was held to just 39 yards on 16 carries (2.4 average).
"Their front seven is pretty good, their down guys are good players obviously," Spack said of Northern Iowa. "They do a good job of walking the safety in and out, being able to add him in in the box and create an eight-man box."
Perhaps as a omen of things to come, Robinson was stopped on a fourth-and-one play at 10:33 of the second quarter. As happened for most of the day, the Redbirds had little success running between the tackles so Robinson was forced to bounce the play to the outside where defensive back Omar Brown dropped him for a loss.
Backup Jeff Proctor was actually more effective and also saw significant playing time on key downs in the second half. Proctor, a junior from Muncie, Ind., rushed for 34 yards on six carries (5.7 average).
With the running game bottled up, ISU quarterback Brady Davis was forced to pass on numerous third-and-long downs. Davis completed 13-of-28 for 135 yards and one touchdown. ISU had just 210 yards of total offense.
"We just couldn't get anything going. UNI is a great defense, great team. They broke a lot of tendencies," said receiver Braxton Haley, who caught ISU's lone touchdown.
2. Turnovers greatly determined the game's outcome.
Northern Iowa forced four turnovers, including three on four consecutive offensive plays in the fourth quarter and tipped the balance of the game in its favor.
Davis threw three interceptions, including one inside of a minute to play before halftime that set up Northern Iowa's taking the lead. Davis scrambled to his left under pressure and threw across his body back across the field. UNI's Omar Brown intercepted the pass and returned it to the ISU 47.
"Huge," Spack said of the turnovers. "We knew that coming in."
The fourth quarter turnovers allowed Northern Iowa to break the game open. The first was an interception by Christian Jegan, which led to a 23-yard field goal by Matthew Cook. On the next play for the Redbirds, Roosevelt Lawrence forced a fumble off a reception by ISU freshman receiver Kacper Rutkiewicz that was recovered by UNI and set up a 33-yard field goal for Cook.
Two plays into Illinois State's next drive, Brown picked up his second interception of the day. The Panthers failed to capitalize when Cook kicked wide right on a 27-yard attempt, but the miss hardly mattered with only 90 seconds remaining in the game.
Brown, a freshman from Minneapolis, has five interceptions on the season. Over the last three games, UNI has forced 13 turnovers.
3. Northern Iowa's youth is impressive.
UNI quarterback Will McElvain, a redshirt freshman from Des Moines, tied his career-high three touchdown passes, including two to Suni Lane (with the first giving the Panthers a 14-7 lead with 11 seconds left before halftime).
Despite playing without his top two running backs for much of the second half, McElvain was 14-of-28 for 189 yards. Perhaps his most impressive play occurred when McElvain escaped a near-sack and threw a 27-yard touchdown to Lane with 11 minutes left, upping UNI's lead to 21-10.
"We knew coming into the game he wanted to scramble and get out of the pocket," ISU defensive end Romeo McKnight said of McElvain. "The majority of the time we tried to do a good job and keep him in there. He made some plays; he's a good player."
Leading receiver Isaiah Weston, a redshirt sophomore, tallied a team-high 68 yards on five catches but was held out of the end zone for the first time since week one's loss to Iowa State.
Freshman Nick McCabe, third on the UNI running back depth chart, tallied 44 rushing yards on 15 carries to lead all rushers.
Illinois State entered Saturday's game with the top red zone defense in FCS. Northern Iowa scored on four of its five trips inside the Redbird 20. To be fair, the Redbird defense was often put into short-field situations from the turnovers.
Illinois State plays at No. 4 South Dakota State Nov. 9. The Jackrabbits defeated Missouri State 35-14 Saturday.