CEDAR FALLS, Iowa – The postseason is supposed to be Northern Iowa's time.
Saturday afternoon, time ran out on Northern Iowa, leaving behind a fresh wound on its playoff resume.
Lehigh upset the Panthers, 14-7, at the UNI-Dome in the opening round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
As a stunned - and small - crowd of 5,990 fans watched, the Mountain Hawks scored two third-quarter touchdowns, both on passes by quarterback Chris Lum. UNI, meanwhile, turned the ball over three times and failed to connect on a trio of field goals in an afternoon filled with offensive frustration.
“This is a bitter loss,” said quarterback Tirrell Rennie, who threw three interceptions and gave way to backup Zach Davis in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter. “A lot of things went their way. A lot of things ... we didn't execute, mainly on my part.”
The loss, in one sense, made history. Entering Saturday's game, UNI head coach Mark Farley owned a 5-0 record in the opening round of the playoffs. That perfect mark is gone.
Overall, the Panthers hadn't suffered a first-game playoff knockout since 1994. Lehigh erased that streak as well.
Meanwhile, the Mountain Hawks (10-2) won a postseason game for the first time in nine years. They'll meet Delaware next weekend.
For UNI, the year ends with a 7-5 overall record. The Panthers won the Missouri Valley Football Conference title, and rebounded from a 2-3 start to reach the playoffs after a one-year break.
But UNI's 2010 season ended Saturday after 12 games in a dozen weeks. And it ended in a place where the Panthers are usually dominant, building a 14-5 record in the playoffs.
“We're supposed to protect the Dome,” said running back Carlos Anderson. “But whether we lose here or on the road, we go back to classes Monday and we sit at home. It's equally bitter, if you ask me.”
UNI owned a 7-0 lead at the half, on a Rennie 17-yard touchdown scramble that followed Craig James' interception at midfield.
Warning signs, though, popped up all over the Dome. UNI's offense struggled against Lehigh's aggressive, blitzing 3-4 defense. And Rennie was making mistakes, often while ducking the Mountain Hawk pass rush. On consecutive series late in the half, the Panther quarterback threw interceptions to stop potential scoring drives.
“We just couldn't make anything happen inside,” said Farley. “We didn't get anybody blocked. (The Mountain Hawks) kept bringing the pressure and we couldn't get any passing game and ultimately, we couldn't move the ball.”
While Lehigh's defense held UNI to a season-low 251 yards, the Mountain Hawks' attack bunched its best shots into the third quarter.
First, Lum found Jake Drwal deep down the right sideline. An Omaha native, Drwal eluded Jamar Thompson and scored the tying touchdown on a 62-yard play with 10 minutes, 8 seconds to go in the third quarter.
Rennie then threw his third - and most disastrous - pick late in the quarter. One play after cornerback John Kennedy brought the interception to the UNI 28, Lum connected with Ryan Spadola for the winning touchdown throw. Exactly 2:08 remained in the period.
“I killed us in the passing game when we needed to pass,” said Rennie, who went 6-of-14 though the air one week after injuring a knee at Western Illinois. “We didn't execute.”
Nor did the Panthers score despite some great chances.
Lehigh's Jarard Cribbs blocked Hallgren's 26-yard field goal try early in the fourth quarter. UNI's senior kicker simply missed his final college 3-point try wide right at the 5:44 mark of the fourth. He had misfired on a 44-yarder early in the third period.
Lehigh handed the Panthers one final opportunity when linebacker Jordan Smith intercepted a halfback option pass at the Hawk 34. The result? Nothing. Davis was sacked for a 12-yard loss on third down. A fourth-down trick play, what was supposed to be a Davis-to-Anderson pass plus a pitch to Rennie, never came close to working.
And time ran out for UNI. The playoff clock was still ticking for Lehigh.
“We wanted to represent the Patriot League well and our university,” said Mountain Hawk head coach Andy Coen. “We were able to do that. I'm very proud of our football team.”