BROOKINGS, S.D. — Northern Iowa's script for winning four-straight football games was creating turnovers and being opportunistic.
The script was reversed on the Panthers Saturday.
Four turnovers and an array of poor special teams plays sunk fourth-ranked UNI in a 38-7 loss to eighth-ranked South Dakota State in Missouri Valley Football Conference action.
Panther head coach Mark Farley did not need a lot of words to describe the loss.
"We didn't play good enough ... it was terrible," Farley stated on his team's play across the board.
In wins over South Dakota, Missouri State, Illinois State and Indiana State, UNI forced 16 turnovers. On Saturday, SDSU (8-3 overall, 5-2 MVFC) forced four turnovers while the Panthers came up with none. The Jacks scored 14 points off those turnovers with the game still in doubt late in the third quarter and the Jacks leading 17-7 as SDSU finished the game on a 21-0 run.
Playing in its first game without star receiver Isaiah Weston, UNI's offense struggled, gaining just 239 yards, including a season-low 85 passing yards.
"Really proud of our football team," SDSU John Stiegelmeier said. "That was a really good football team we beat. We had some things go our way, but I'm going to claim we made them go our way.
"I thought our defense played close to perfect. I was really impressed with them."
On the flip side, SDSU got a great game from freshman quarterback Keaton Heide who completed his first 14 passes, a Jack record to start a game, as he finished 15 of 16 for 196 yards and two touchdowns. The Jack's offensive success came after they lost 1,000-yard rusher Pierre Strong in the second quarter to a knee injury.
"He was good," Farley said.
It was just was just a 7-0 deficit at halftime for the Panthers (7-4 overall, 5-2 MVFC). But SDSU scored on its opening drive of the third quarter on a 10-yard Jaxon Janke touchdown reception that closed a nine-play, 73-yard drive.
"The difference in the game was the drive to start the second half," Farley said. "They drove the field and scored on the first series of the second half, that one hurt. That was the drive of the game."
Janke returned a punt 34 yards to set up a Chase Vinatieri 44-yard field goal and a 17-0 lead before UNI showed it still had a pulse.
A 30-yard Trevor Allen kick off return gave UNI the ball at its own 40. McElvain hit Jaylin James for a gain of 21 and he scrambled 13 yards for another first down. Freshman Sam Schnee capped off the drive with his first career touchdown on a 11-yard run.
It appeared as the Panthers had even more life after the defense forced a three-and-out. But on UNI's first play, on a designed run, McElvain was stripped by Tolu Ogunrinde and Don Gardner scooped it up and returned it 22 yards for a touchdown.
"That was the back breaker," Farley said.
It got worse as on the Panther's next possession, McElvain's deep pass slipped through the hands of Logan Wolf right to Michael Griffin for an interception and Heide hit Cade Johnson for a 20-yard score and a 31-7 lead.
The only points of the first half came following a trick SDSU play.
After a short UNI punt, SDSU lined up in the Wildcat formation. Pierre Strong took the snap and ran left pitching the ball to Heide. Heide then launched a 65-yard pass to Johnson all the way to the Panther 4. Two plays later, Mikey Daniel scored on a 2-yard run with 13:16 left on the second quarter clock.
"It was 7-0 at halftime and man we were in great shape, absolutely great shape," Farley said. "Because we had error in the punt team. We had error in so many different ways and the defense stopped them and shut them down. We had everything we wanted on the road at 7-0 playing a real good football team."
UNI took its opening possession and drove to the Jack 30. But on a 3rd-and-8 play, McElvain's pass was high and deflected and intercepted by Jordan Gandy. That was the Panthers' best chance to score.
The defense made three huge stands.
Brawntae Wells blocked a Vinatieri 52-yard field goal on SDSU's first possession. Then in the second quarter, McElvain was picked off by Logan Backhaus on another tipped pass at the Panther 45, but the defense forced a quick three and out.
Then a 16-yard punt that traveled to the UNI 35 once again set SDSU in prime position. But Vinatieri was wide right from 45 with 1:34 left to half.
"Losing here twice in a row, I knew they'd take their best shot and they did," Farley concluded. "That is why I thought we were in good shape at halftime because we had taken their best shot. All they had was a trick play."