By Joe Scalzo
CEDAR FALLS, Iowa
Over the past decade, the Youngstown State football program has sometimes seemed miles away from Northern Iowa.
On Saturday, it was only inches.
Thanks to a gutsy call on fourth-and-goal with two minutes remaining, the Panthers rallied for a 21-17 win Saturday in a game that officially ended the Penguins’ playoff hopes, but left many inside the program believing they’re closer than they’ve been in years to competing for a league title.
“We’re heading in the right direction,” YSU coach Eric Wolford said. “Northern Iowa is one of the elite teams in this league, one that’s been consistently at the top. We’re trying to get Youngstown back to that.”
After giving up a quick touchdown in the closing seconds of the first half, the Penguins’ defense forced punts on UNI’s first six possessions, allowing YSU to regain the lead, 17-14, on a 38-yard TD pass from Kurt Hess to tight end Will Shaw with 13:42 to go in the fourth quarter.
But YSU’s next two possessions lasted just six plays, with UNI forcing punts both times.
Northern Iowa’s game-winning drive started at its own 37 with 7:29 left.
Behind a 32-yard pass from redshirt freshman quarterback Jared Lanpher (starting in place of senior standout Tirrell Rennie) and seven rushes by David Johnson, the Panthers drove inside the Penguin 1, where they faced fourth-and-inches with about two minutes remaining.
“It’s a split-second decision,” UNI coach Mark Farley said of going for the win instead of the game-tying field goal. “It comes down to a gut instinct.
“I think you’ve got to trust in your football team and have confidence in them.”
Johnson first tried to leap over the pile, got stuffed, but kept his feet moving, plowing over the right side of the line for the touchdown with 1:59 left.
“It came down to a game of inches and I made a huge mental error and it cost us,” said YSU senior defensive tackle Andrew Johnson, whose offsides penalty six plays earlier gave UNI a first-and-5 at the YSU 9. “I feel like we can go head-to-head up against anybody. We proved that against Michigan State and in the second half.”
YSU got the ball back at its own 26, then picked up a first down at the 38. But three straight incompletions, combined with a false start penalty, left the Penguins with a fourth-and-15 at the 33.
Hess tried to hit freshman Christian Bryan on a deep route over the middle but the pass went too high and got picked off by Garrett Scott to end the threat.
“We have to go out there and close out the game,” Hess said. “It’s one thing to take the lead, it’s another to close out the game. We didn’t do that.”
Jamaine Cook carried 30 times for 90 yards and a TD for YSU, which will play at No. 1 North Dakota State next weekend.
Lanpher, in his first start, completed 16 of 28 passes for 238 yards — 162 of them in the first half — and two TDs.
With Rennie out, UNI rushed 27 times and netted just 30 yards.
Ultimately, YSU needed it to be 29.
“It’s just another great game between Youngstown and Northern Iowa,” said Farley, whose team has won 11 straight against the Penguins. “We were fortunate to win this game and many before it. We’ll take this one.”