Portland State’s dream season died hard Saturday night.
The Vikings fell victim to three lightning-bolt touchdowns by quick-striking Northern Iowa and went down 29-17 at Providence Park.
The Panthers of the Missouri Valley Football Conference, who were 2-4 early in the season, scored on runs of 59, 61 and 69 yards to move on to the quarterfinals of the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision. Northern Iowa rushed for 401 yards, including 207 yards and two touchdowns by running back Tyvis Smith and 200 yards and two more long scores by quarterback Aaron Bailey.
UNI (9-4) won for the seventh straight week. The Panthers will play four-time defending national champion North Dakota State in Fargo, North Dakota next week. NDSU defeated UNI 31-28 earlier this season.
The Vikings, one of the best feel-good stories in college football this season, ended the year at 9-3. They will be able to claim a six-game turnaround from last season, two victories over FBS teams, their first victory over a Pac-12 team (Washington State) and unending stream of national attention for it all. Saturday marked the second playoff game for the Vikings since moving to Division I in 1996. It was the first postseason game PSU hosted during the Division I era.
Northern Iowa can Aaron Bailey for the ticket to Fargo. The junior quarterback, who is UNI’s leading rusher and passer both, was all over the Vikings all night. The Illinois transfer scored on touchdown runs of 61 and 69 yards, ran for 200 yards on 26 carries and delivered in the clutch most of the times his team needed him.
PSU quarterback Alex Kuresa, scrambling all night in the face of a ferocious rush (he was sacked three times) kept the Vikings in the game until the late running with both his arm and legs. He threw for 105 yards, including just seven in the first half. He threw a 16-yard touchdown to Chase Loftin with eight minutes to play in the third quarter to cut the UNI lead to 16-10. Bailey answered with a 69-yard sprint. PSU senior David Jones scored a nine-yard hurdling touchdown with 12 minutes left in the game to cut the UNI lead to 23-17. But Smith’s 59-yard run four minutes later sealed the victory.
“They were a strong, physical front seven,” Portland State head coach Bruce Barnum said of Northern Iowa’s defense. “And when you go to throw, they have good safeties and corners. They did an outstanding job in the first half in taking out of our offense.”
Portland State took over after Smith’s touchdown but UNI linebacker Brett McMakin continued his dominant play. His interception sealed the victory.
“I liked how our kids came back and had a shot, but we were always one score back. Kudos and salute to Northern Iowa. They played a heck of a football game,” said Barnum.
In the first half, the Panthers took advantage of two critical PSU mistakes in the closing moments of the second quarter to score nine points in the last 2:38 and take a 16-3 lead into the locker room at the half.
UNI was nursing a 7-3 lead late in the first half, but momentum had swung over to the Vikings. PSU had driven from its own 20 yard line to the Panthers’ 18 — thanks mostly to Nate Tago’s 41-yard burst up the middle — when Paris Penn and Jones missed connections on a handoff into the middle of the line and the ball squirted free.
Northern Iowa lineman Preston Woods recovered at the Panther 20 and the PSU drive died with 4:24 left in the half.
The Panthers struck back quickly for a touchdown. They punched the ball out to their own 39, then Bailey popped into the middle on a quarterback draw. Three Vikings missed tackles and Bailey pulled away for a 61-yard touchdown. Aaron Sibley blocked the extra point to keep the UNI lead at 13-3.
PSU’s subsequent drive went nowhere and Marcus Kinsella pinned UNI back on its own 35 yard line with a punt. There was only 1:20 left in the half, but the Panthers made good use of it.
They got to the PSU 32 with just two seconds left until the break. Kicker Michael Schmadeke, who had missed from 30 yards on UNI’s opening drive, lined up for a 49-yard field goal. But a Viking mistimed his rush and jumped offside.
That brought Schmadeke five yards closer, and it mattered. His 44-yard field goal just cleared the crossbar, and the Panthers had a 16-3 lead at the half.
Northern Iowa’s other touchdown came with 5:47 left in the first quarter, when the Panthers went 66 yards in 11 plays — and a critical pass interference penalty on PSU. Smith ended it with a three-yard bolt into the left side.
With Portland State’s elimination, no Big Sky Conference team will play in the quarterfinals. The rest of the bracket includes: No. 8 seed Charleston Southern at top-seeded Jacksonville State on Friday night; Colgate playing at Sam Houston State on Saturday night; seventh-seeded Richmond at second-seeded Illinois State on Friday night; and UNI at NDSU on Saturday afternoon.