CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — Much of the success the University of Maine football team enjoyed during the 2008 season was predicated on its ability to run the football.
When Northern Iowa took away the Black Bears’ strength Saturday evening, it forced them out of their comfort zone — and out of the postseason.
The fourth-ranked Panthers built a 16-point halftime lead, then gradually extended it while earning a 40-15 NCAA first-round playoff victory at the UNI-Dome.
Northern Iowa (11-2) advances to host New Hampshire (10-2) in Saturday’s NCAA quarterfinal. Coach Jack Cosgrove’s 20th-ranked Black Bears finish the season at 8-5.
“They outplayed us. They deserved to win,” Cosgrove said. “They were a better football team than we were across the board.”
Northern Iowa’s stout defense forced UMaine away from its offensive strength. The Bears managed only 84 rushing yards, their second lowest total of the season.
“We had a difficult time running the football,” Cosgrove said. “We knew and respected their front four especially, [they’re] very talented. We knew that would be difficult.”
UNI’s formidable defensive front, led by Chuck Kinney’s six tackles, set the tone for the day. Linebacker Josh Mahoney registered 10 tackles.
With their run game stymied, and facing a significant deficit, the Bears were forced to throw. Junior quarterback Mike Brusko went 15-for-23 through the air for 180 yards and a touchdown, but was intercepted four times and sacked on three occasions.
“Once we got forced to start throwing some drop-back pass, it was tough for us,” Brusko said. “It’s tough mentally, too, knowing that you’re behind and that you’ve got to force the action to get back in the game.”
Quarterback Pat Grace was the maestro of the UNI offense, which was equally effective on the ground (193 yards) and through the air (229 yards).
Wearing a brace on his left knee, Grace completed 15 of 24 passes with two touchdowns (and one interception). He also avoided the Bears’ pass rush and ran for 54 yards.
“We came into the game stopping the run, that’s our m.o. [modus operandi],” said UMaine linebacker Andrew Downey, who posted nine tackles, including a sack. “We wanted to make the quarterback beat us and he did a hell of a job and he did beat us.”
The Panthers ran the ball effectively, with tailbacks Corey Lewis (75 yards) and Derrick Law (64 yards) complementing the passing attack.
Despite its early struggles, UMaine was very much in the contest in the first half. Trailing 7-0, the Bears received a boost when Tyrell Jones burst through and blocked a punt that was recovered by Jonathan Calderon at the UNI 15.
Brusko completed a third-down pass to Kenny Fersner that set up Derek Session’s 2-yard touchdown run. Jordan Waxman’s PAT kick tied the game with 7:53 left in the half.
The Bears’ momentum was short-lived. UNI responded with a 68-yard drive capped by a 42-yard touchdown pass from Pat Grace to Jarred Herring on a post pattern that gave them it the lead for good.
The Panthers’ defense responded on the ensuing series. De’Veon Harris sacked Brusko who, two plays later, stumbled in the end zone and touched his knee down for a safety.
Leading 16-7, UNI took the free kick and scored in three plays. Grace stepped up in the pocket and found Herring (three catches, 102 yards), who had slipped behind the secondary, for a 55-yard touchdown.
The Panthers had scored 17 points in a span of only two minutes, 29 seconds.
“You’ve got to credit the quarterback for making the plays,” Cosgrove said. “They were off mini-scrambles, but [were] good decisions and really good throws that separated them from us at that point and really, I think, turned the game.”
Northern Iowa accumulated 306 yards of total offense in the first half and put the Bears in catch-up mode. The hosts could have built a bigger cushion, but missed two field goals.
“Our special teams kept them in the game and essentially could have gotten them back in the game,” said UNI coach Mark Farley.
UMaine was unable to mount a comeback, especially after the Panthers went 42 yards in almost seven minutes to set up Billy Hallgren’s 39-yard field goal on the opening possession of the second half.
“We were in a bigger hole than most, because we’re not a real high-level pass team,” Cosgrove said. “When you get behind, it challenges you to do some things that maybe you’re not quite as good at.”
UMaine, which totaled only 264 yards, did eventually mount a 12-play, 80-yard scoring drive in the fourth quarter. Brusko fired a 10-yard touchdown pass to Session (five catches, 70 yards) with 5:49 left.
“That’s a hell of a team,” said UMaine center Ryan Canary. “They didn’t do anything [unexpected], scheme-wise. Man on man, they’re physically probably better, and it definitely showed.”
Maine linebacker Mark Masterson made eight tackles and safety Lamir Whetstone added seven tackles and an interception.