Short-handed Panthers found a way to challenge NDSU

Northern Iowa’s Spencer Cuvelier reaches to make a tackle against North Dakota State University’s Josh Babicz on Saturday in the Panthers’ season finale.

CEDAR FALLS – Northern Iowa made it to the end.

From the start of the 2021 spring season, Panther head coach Mark Farley said UNI was going to play until the very end even if he had to play only freshmen.

It never came to that, but it got real close Saturday in a 23-20 loss to North Dakota State at the UNI-Dome that saw the Panthers fall to 3-4 and likely end any hopes that a victory over the Bison would have put them back into the FCS playoff picture.

Five key players did not play in the loss that played in UNI’s most recent game, a win at Western Illinois. Missing on offense were running back Dom Williams and electric wide receiver Isaiah Weston.

Defense is where the Panthers were really hurting as three starting defensive linemen, ends Brawntae Wells and Caden Houghtelling and tackle Tim Butcher, were in street clothes on the sidelines.

In all, UNI had just three regular rotation defensive linemen suit up – Jared Brinkman, Devin Rice and Khristian Boyd. Reserve Sean Wendel saw his first action, and the Panthers were so short-handed they practiced offensive guard Hayden Amos at defensive tackle on Friday to give them another spare and UNI needed him as he played a handful of snaps.

“I looked at those defensive coaches this week and I’m trying to figure out how do we line up and stop that offense with three defensive linemen,” Farley said. “And what they did today (the players) is played their tails off.”

Farley was dead on as that group held their own against a NDSU team that in its previous four games had averaged 246.2 yards rushing. Saturday, the Bison got 155, but needed 41 carries to get there.

“You kind of have to go with the flow,” linebacker Spencer Cuvelier explained of dealing with all the injuries and COVID absences. “It is adapting to certain situations throughout the game. We were prepared. Everybody works just as hard as the next guy so the next guy was always ready to go in.”

In all, Farley said the Panthers were down 25 guys from either a COVID related absence or injury in Saturday’s game.

“The spirit and passion of players…they played for each other and the university today,” Farley said. “Today we became a football team with what we did. Extremely proud of our guys.”