AMES, Iowa – Iowa State ended their two-game losing streak to FCS teams in the season-opening game by defeating Northern Iowa on Saturday night, 31-7.
The Cyclones’ defense and special teams – despite two missed field goals by Cole Netten – led the way in the team’s newly renovated stadium as Iowa State overpowered the Panthers.
Northern Iowa initially found themselves leading 7-0 early in the second quarter after quarterback Aaron Bailey found Savon Hunnings on a screen pass for a 19-yard score. Bailey also ran wild against ISU in the first half, using his athleticism to accumulate 84 yards on the ground through two quarters.
Following the Northern Iowa touchdown, UNI recovered a Quenton Bundrage fumble. Just as Cyclone fans started to feel a little uneasy, likely the biggest play of the game occurred when Bailey was pressured and threw an interception right to defensive end Dale Pierson. He rumbled down the field and returned it 24 yards, which changed the momentum of the game.
It was all Iowa State following Pierson’s interception, whose additional three sacks were the most for a Cyclone since Jason Berryman had 3.5 in 2005. ISU went into the locker room with a 10-7 lead thanks to true freshman Josh Thomas’ 1-yard touchdown run and a 24-yard field goal from Netten.
"To be honest, coach Rhoads has been talking to us a lot about pressing pause and coming back into it when something happens," Pierson said after the game. "In every football game no matter how good you are, there's going to be a time where the other team has a play. I think we just pressed pause, kept being positive to each other and didn't drop our heads."
Sam Richardson and company took control of the game in the third quarter. The quarterback found Dondre Daley for an electric 36-yard score and Allen Lazard on a 13-yard touchdown to take a 24-7 lead, all while the defense began to suffocate Bailey and prevent those long runs he enjoyed in the first half.
The fourth quarter was highlighted by an 81-yard touchdown by Trever Ryen on a punt return. Throughout the game, Lazard also provided a spark by feasting on the Panthers’ inability to cover punts, accumulating 100 yards on four returns.
"It was unreal, I think their punter definitely helped us out by shooting some liners at our guys," Richardson said after the win. "They (Lazard and Ryen) got to the ball on the return and it just makes our job easier."
Northern Iowa struggled to move the ball through the air deep down the field against the Cyclones and were unable to mount a comeback. The combination of relentless defense, opportunistic play on special teams, and Richardson’s understanding to get the ball in his playmaker's hands proved to be vital in the team's victory.
Even with the convincing win, head coach Paul Rhoads will unquestionably find several areas for the Cyclones to improve on. The need to start games with more energy, shoring up the kicking game, and reducing the number of turnovers comes to mind after Saturday’s season opener.
"We had to come out, and we struggled at first, but we stuck with each other and kept encouraging each other," Lazard said following the victory. "The defense played a hell of a game tonight, no doubt we would have not won that game without the defense."
Iowa State (1-0) will now prepare to host archrival Iowa (1-0) next Saturday, who posted an easy win of their own to start the year.