Panthers hang on, win by 1 yard



Theo Day (12) had a career day for the Panthers, passing for 330 yards and five touchdowns without an interception.

DREW HILL, Opinion Columnist

On the road in Carbondale, Ill., UNI faced the No. 20 ranked Southern Illinois Salukis. In a 37-36 game that featured 1,001 yards of total offense, five lead changes and a Hail Mary at the end that wound up at the 1-yard line, UNI held on for the win.

This was a colossal game for UNI in regards to FCS playoff hopes. After an 0-3 start to the season, UNI had won four of five games coming into this game. However, they had not had a signature win over a team with a winning record. Southern Illinois came into the game 5-3. They lost in the previous week to South Dakota, but had won five in a row before that, including an upset over Power Five squad Northwestern back on Sept. 17. They came into the game ranked at No. 20 in the FCS STATS Perform Poll and No. 24 in the FCS Coaches poll.

This game was full of offense from the beginning. Southern Illinois got the opening kickoff and drove all the way down to the UNI 2-yard line. However, the UNI defense stopped them there, and the Salukis were forced to kick a field goal, taking a 3-0 lead. UNI responded with a touchdown drive that ended with a Theo Day pass to Sergio Morancy to give the Panthers a 7-3 lead. Southern Illinois took just over a minute to respond with a 48-yard touchdown pass to make it 10-7.

The rest of the half was all UNI, as they scored on all four of their first half drives before a brief kneel to end the half. In addition to the Morancy catch, Day found Desmond Hutson, Deion McShane and Sam Schnee for touchdowns. Southern Illinois did score a touchdown between the Hutson and McShane catches, but UNI rode a 28-17 lead into halftime.

Momentum was on UNI’s side, but that changed as disaster struck on UNI’s first play of the second half. Day was sacked and fumbled the ball, which was recovered by Southern Illinois at the UNI 14-yard line. Southern Illinois took just two plays to score. UNI stopped a two-point conversion attempt, and so the score was 28-23. UNI went on a lengthy drive down to the 8-yard line, but were stopped short, and so Matthew Cook nailed a short field goal to extend the Panther lead to 31-23. Cook’s field goal gave him 64 for his career, which ties him with former Panther and MVFC record holder Billy Hallgren for the most career field goals.

Southern Illinois drove back down the field again. Helped along by a 45-yard pass, they scored another touchdown. Once again, they attempted a two-point conversion to tie the game, but UNI stopped them again, and the Panthers held on to a two-point 31-29 lead. UNI took their next drive to the Southern Illinois 40-yard line, but after a sack knocked them back to the 43, UNI was forced to punt for the first time in the game. Southern Illinois proceeded to score a touchdown for the third-straight drive, giving them their first lead since the first half, 36-31.

UNI, having only scored three points in the second half after scoring 28 in the first, took 5:23 off the clock on their next drive. Day found Hutson for his fifth passing touchdown of the game to regain the lead. UNI went for two to try to take a three-point lead, but failed to convert the two-point conversion, leaving them with a 37-36 lead.

Southern Illinois got the ball with a little under six minutes left, and took over five minutes off the clock as they positioned themselves for a potential game-winning score. UNI stopped them at the 23-yard line, and so Southern Illinois attempted a 41-yard field goal that would have given them a two-point lead. They missed, and so UNI had a chance to end the game with 47 seconds left. UNI ran the ball to try to drain the clock, but Southern Illinois stopped them on third down and called timeouts after each play. UNI was forced to punt on fourth down with 35 seconds left, giving Southern Illinois one more chance to score. After a few short passes, Southern Illinois only had four seconds left from the UNI 48-yard line. UNI intercepted the pass, but an offsides penalty gave the Salukis one last play with no time on the clock from the UNI 43-yard line. They threw the ball to Jay Jones at the 1-yard line, but UNI tackled him short to hold on for the 37-36 win.

UNI had 461 yards in the game to Southern Illinois’ 540 yards. Day accounted for 330 passing yards and threw for all five of UNI’s touchdowns to four different receivers. The UNI ground game picked up 131 yards and were led by Vance McShane with 75 yards and Dom Williams with 72 yards. Schnee had eight receptions for 96 yards, and Deion McShane was not far behind with 6 catches for 84 yards. Southern Illinois’ quarterback, Nic Baker, threw for a whopping 485 yards and three touchdowns, but UNI held the Salukis run game to 55 yards.

UNI’s next game is against No. 1 ranked South Dakota State in the UNI-Dome on Saturday, Nov. 5. The game will be available to stream on ESPN+.