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ISU Downs UNI in Teeth-Rattling GMW Final

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ISU Downs UNI in Teeth-Rattling GMW Final

ISU in green and gold, UNI in purple. Alex Goff photo.

In a tight, hugely physical match that lived up to expectations, Illinois State held off a determined Northern Iowa team 27-23 to win the Great Midwest.

Both teams move on to the national playoffs and both will take Round of 16 berths. but ISU gets the bigger trophy.

Northern Iowa, starting the game without their regular flyhalf, Jentry Staack, who had received a red card the week before, put ISU under pressure from the kickoff. Illinois State defended their line for several minutes until they managed to get a turnover and immediately launched a counter-attack.

UNI couldn’t recover and Tom Nevara, who doubles as the team’s backs coach, raced in under the posts. Illinois State took a 7-0 lead against the run over play.

UNI continued to to pressure and work the ball through the hands. A nice break on the left got them close and then Kaleb Boleyn was over to make it 7-5.

Illinois State kept up the intensity and broke through, with their dynamo scrumhalf Demond Shavers picking up and sliding over.

That was part of the story of the game, with Illinois State just barely keeping ahead of Northern Iowa.

The game settled after that into a bit of a slugfest. Both teams tried to attack wide and keep the ball moving, but the tackles were secure, and very hard, preventing either team from getting through. There was continuity, but not much space.

ISU broke through for a try late in the first half that put them up 17-5, and then held Northern Iowa from scoring right before the break, which was a critical preservation of momentum.

The Comeback

Early in the second half UNI marched down to the ISU line and continued to keep the pressure. Eventually ISU kicked clear but right into flyhalf David Randall’s hands. The Great Midwest Conference leading points-scorer calmly lined up a drop kick and sent the ball sailing through the posts. That made it 17-8. Moments later UNI broke down the sideline and Colby Wiederholter was there to beat more defenders and score. Randall converted and suddenly it was 17-15. 

Illinois State remained calm and No. 8 Cade Kerns scored off an eightman pick to nudge his side further ahead at 22-15. 

After that Northern Iowa camped out in the ISU 22 but they took ages to score, finally getting a Randall penalty goal. That made it 22-18 but it was just too difficult for UNI. After all that time, a hard-nosed movement involving Shavers, Kerns, and a couple of backs set it up for prop and offensive structure coach Eric Jones to blast over from short range. 

Now it was 27-18 and UNI needed to score twice. They started tapping every penalty and all of that work put Jared Elder over. But pinned in their own 22 for the final five minutes or so, UNI couldn’t find that final scoring chance.

For UNI, flanker Brandon Gould and lock Garrett Getz augmented a team that handled things well even after losing their starting No. 8 ten minutes into the game.

Self-coached Illinois State managed to avoid that mental implosion teams can get when a comeback is underway, and always answered UNI scores with scores of their own. Tommy Canova, who is also the forwards coach, and lock James Smith added some firepower to the effort.