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Sports >  EWU football

Eastern Washington, Northern Iowa have history of close games entering Saturday’s playoff opener

Nov. 24, 2021 Updated Wed., Nov. 24, 2021 at 3:13 p.m.

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

Mark Farley has been around the Football Championship Subdivision long enough to know that, like his own Northern Iowa team, Eastern Washington has a rich tradition of success.

But that reputation is rather different than that of his own defensive-minded Northern Iowa teams.

“I tell you what: It doesn’t take much to dig out on (EWU), because they’re exactly what everybody would think they are because of their tradition,” Farley, UNI’s head coach, said this week during his media availability.

“They are a wide-open, spread offense that scores a lot of points that has a great quarterback, and that’s Eastern Washington football if you look at it from where we stand in the Midwest.”

Farley would know: He has been a part of all seven matchups in the programs’ all-time series, first as a player in 1985; as an assistant coach in 1989, 1992 and 1994; and as UNI’s head coach in 2005, 2015 and 2016.

The two different approaches have led the programs to similar levels of success.

Since 2001, Farley’s first as head coach, the Panthers have won seven conference championships.

Over that same span, the Eagles have won eight conference titles .

The two have also won nearly the same number of playoff games during the past 20 years – UNI’s record is 17-12, EWU’s is 16-10 – and each has reached the national title game. UNI lost there in 2005; Eastern won a national championship in 2010 and lost in 2018.

While UNI won the first four matchups in its all-time series with EWU, the most recent three – all of which Eagles head coach Aaron Best was a part of as an Eastern assistant – have been high-scoring and decided by key plays late.

In each, the margin of victory was four or three points.

Here’s a look back at the circumstances and results of those three most recent games in the series, which will continue Saturday in the opening round of the playoffs at Roos Field.

Nov. 26, 2005: No. 7 Northern Iowa 41, No. 15 Eastern Washington 38

One year after upsetting the top-ranked team in the playoff bracket, EWU headed into a first-round matchup at Northern Iowa as a program still building its reputation as an offensive powerhouse.

UNI missed the playoffs in 2004 but won opening-round games in 2003 and 2003, advancing as far as the semifinals in 2001 (it lost at Montana 38-0).

When the programs met in 2005, two days after Thanksgiving, both were early in establishing what would become two decades of competitiveness in their conferences and the postseason.

Quarterbacked by Erik Meyer, the two-time Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year and the Walter Payton Award winner that season, the Eagles built a 38-24 lead with 11:03 to play, but it slipped away quickly.

Twice in a row the Eagles went three-and-out, allowing the Panthers to score 17 unanswered points, capped by a 31-yard field goal with 51 seconds left.

Eastern finished the year 7-5 and reached the postseason again six of the next 10 seasons.

UNI advanced to the championship game that season, losing 21-16 to Appalachian State. It made five more playoff appearances over the following decade.

Sept. 12, 2015: No. 14 Northern Iowa 38, No. 7 Eastern Washington 35

It was 10 years before the programs met again, in a nonconference game, and both again entered the game ranked among the top 15 in the FCS.

Both entered the game coming off losses to Football Bowl Subdivision schools, UNI to Iowa State and EWU to Oregon. By the end of the season, the outcome in Cedar Falls might have been a key factor in their postseason fates: Eastern finished 6-5 in the regular season and missed the playoffs, and UNI went 7-4 and made it.

EWU quarterbacks Jordan West and Reilly Hennessey combined to throw for 526 yards and four touchdowns in a back-and-forth game in which neither team led by more than seven points until late in the fourth quarter, when UNI took a 10-point lead on an interception-return touchdown.

In the first half, West found Cooper Kupp for two touchdowns, and in the second half West and Hennessey each threw a touchdown to Kendrick Bourne. But after the second score to Bourne gave Eastern a 28-21 lead, the Panthers scored the next 17 points over a 7-minute span in the fourth quarter.

The Eagles finished with just 26 rushing yards on 25 attempts, including Jabari Wilson’s touchdown run late that cut the deficit to three points.

The Panthers gained 266 of their 460 yards of offense on the ground.

While Eastern gained 7.7 yards per play – UNI’s figure was 6.2 – the Eagles were also called for 15 penalties that cost them 159 yards. They also committed the game’s only turnover.

Sept. 17, 2016: No. 8 Eastern Washington 34, No. 10 Northern Iowa 30

The lone victory for Eastern in the series came the next season at Roos Field in what was, before Saturday’s playoff game, the only time the teams met in Cheney.

It came two weeks after the Eagles defeated Washington State 45-42 in Pullman but one week after a 50-44 loss at FCS No. 1 North Dakota State in Fargo. In a similar sequence, the Panthers won their opener 25-20 over Iowa State and lost at home 20-14 to No. 14 Montana.

The setup couldn’t have been much better.

And what a thriller it was against Northern Iowa. Trailing 30-28, the Eagles scored the winning touchdown on a successful fake field goal with 43 seconds left, overcoming a 17-point halftime deficit and propelling the team on an 11-game winning streak that didn’t end until the FCS semifinals.

The Eagles played without an injured Kupp, and in the third quarter coach Beau Baldwin benched quarterback Gage Gubrud and replaced him with Hennessey.

Hennessey completed 21 of 28 pass attempts for 226 yards and three touchdowns – including a 23-yard connection with Beau Byus on the fake field goal. The Eagles only ran for 63 yards, 17 of which by then-freshman Tamarick Pierce.

Eastern’s second-leading tackler was Zach Bruce, who is now the Eagles’ safeties coach.

At the end of that season, Baldwin left to become the offensive coordinator at Cal, and Best was promoted to head coach.

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