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Panther football ends its 2010 drive
UNI runs out of gas during 14-7 loss to Lehigh University.
The 2010 University of Northern Iowa football season ended Saturday as the Lehigh University Mountain Hawks stole away a 14-7 first round playoff win in the UNI-Dome. The loss was the Panthers’ second-straight and seemed to prove their ride had finally broken down.
UNI put a lot of time and effort into fixing up what resembled an inoperable vehicle at the beginning of their season. The Panthers puttered their way to a 16-9 opening game win over Missouri Valley Conference foe North Dakota State University then fell twice to more well-maintained competition, Stephen F. Austin University and Iowa State University.
All the while, noticeable problems were exposed, including the Football Championship Subdivision’s worst turnover margin and red zone efficiency. In their opening three contests, the Panthers unwillingly gave up the football on 11 occasions. Seven of those turnovers occurred within 20 yards of the end zone, contributing to a 33 percent mark in red zone efficiency.
“For some reason right now it feels like we’re allergic to the end zone,” said junior quarterback Tirrell Rennie following UNI’s 27-0 loss to Iowa State.
From that point, the Panthers repaired the leak, giving up fewer turnovers in their next seven games than they did in their first three. The turnover margin statistic proved to be a strong indicator of UNI’s success up to their final regular season game. Every contest in which the Panthers won or tied the turnover battle in that span of 10 games resulted in a UNI victory.
With that issue fixed, the Panthers continued their 2010 season down a comparatively smoother road, winning six out of seven games and securing an outright conference championship in the meantime.
During that time, Panther fans and opposing squads witnessed Rennie perform his own adaptation of “Smokey and the Bandit.” The junior college transfer compiled more than 900 yards rushing in those seven games, earning much respect from both friends and foes.
Following a 153-yard, four-touchdown rushing performance against Illinois State University, Rennie was named FCS National Player of the Week honors. Two weeks later, Rennie became the first UNI quarterback ever to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season as he ran for 187 yards against Indiana State University.
“You’re not going to stop (Rennie); you just got to try and contain him,” said Indiana State head coach Trent Miles.
The Panthers crossed the finish line on their way toward their team goal for the 2010 season at the UNI-Dome Nov. 13. Their 38-14 win over Missouri State University earned UNI the outright conference title in what ended up being probably the most evenly-spread MVFC fields in recent memory. The conference championship also locked up a spot in the newly-expanded 20-team playoffs for UNI.
Securing the outright MVFC title at the UNI-Dome on senior night seemed to be very fitting for a senior class that helped the Panthers earn three conference championships in four years. What makes the mark even more impressive is the fact that only four seniors were represented in this year’s offensive and defensive starting lineups.
“That’s what I’ll remember this team by, is the leadership. The group had to learn how to lead, and as compared to last year, it is night and day of what this team did with its talent versus other teams that had a lot of talent,” said UNI head coach Mark Farley.
Knowing that their season would live on for more than a week, the Panthers entered their final regular season game looking to convince the playoff selection committee that they were worthy of a first round bye. However, the Western Illinois University Leathernecks were also trying to do some convincing as they needed a victory over UNI to give themselves a chance of qualifying for the playoffs. A dominant 30-14 Western Illinois win ended up being a fairly compelling argument, and the Leathernecks found themselves in the FCS playoffs the very next week.
Because of the loss, UNI was not afforded an opening round bye and was matched with Lehigh for their first-round playoff game. By this time, the Panthers were entering their 12th consecutive weekend with a game because their open week was scheduled for week one of the 2010 season.
The wear and tear showed during UNI’s defensive struggle with the Mountain Hawks. It became evident that the Panthers had simply run out of gas as they returned to a form that resembled much of their early-season problems. Rennie threw three interceptions for the game while UNI’s two red zone appearances resulted in missed field goals in their 14-7 loss.
“Lehigh did a great job today, but I think what you saw from our football team is we didn’t have quite the depth that we had in years past … and you don’t see Tirrell have the speed that he had early in the season. He’s been hit around and banged around enough, and we haven’t had an open date to get him fresh again,” Farley said.
UNI ended its 2010 drive with a 7-5 record, champions of the MVFC and a playoff qualifier. While that is a successful season for most programs, Farley and the Panthers have set a high bar, winning the MVFC six out of the last 10 seasons. In five of those seasons, UNI at least advanced to the playoff quarterfinals.
But when asked if he was satisfied with his team’s performance this season, Farley said yes.
“Hopefully what they take away from (the Lehigh game), and what I told them (after that game), is that this will be a sour note, but what you should take from this is what leadership can do. We won not because of talent this year. We won because of leadership.”
Panther football ends its 2010 drive
By TIM GETTING - Sports Writer / Scientist, The Northern Iowan