CEDAR FALLS – Coming into Saturday, the matchup to watch in the battle of two top-ten teams in No. 5 Northern Iowa and No. 9 McNeese State was supposed to be the Panthers' defense against the Cowboys' offense.
After all, McNeese State (4-1) had the seventh-ranked offense in the FCS, having scored at least 40 points in all four games, and Northern Iowa (4-0) had the 12th-ranked defense. But in a dominating effort, the Panthers turned the tables on the Cowboys in a 41-6 win.
"Our team was in the right mindset, and they were just ready to play this football game," said Northern Iowa Coach Mark Farley. "Credit the players. You've really got to be disciplined to play a team like (McNeese State).
"I just felt our team was in the mindset of playing as a team. That was the only way we were going to win this game was as a unit."
When it was all said and done, Farley could have pointed to a handful of players as the reason for the lopsided victory.
Because even though the defense – led by Jordan Gacke, who disrupted the McNeese State run game consistently with 10 tackles and one tackle for loss – bottled up the Cowboys and held them to a season-low 280 total yards, the Panthers did what their counterparts usually do to opponents on offense.
Northern Iowa totaled 466 yards of total offense, and did so in style, with receiver Kevin Vereen seemingly one-upping himself with every catch he made. The sophomore made three highlight-reel catches, each with one hand.
"(I've never seen that,) not by the same guy on the same night that many times. He was tremendous tonight, and I'm happy for him," Farley said of Vereen, who ended the game with four catches for 109 yards. "That's the kind of player he is. It's just this is the first time everybody got to see what we think of Kevin Vereen."
McNeese State Coach Matt Viator pulled no punches after the game when giving credit to Northern Iowa for what they were able to do.
Like Farley, other Panthers players and the 12,325 fans at the UNI-Dome, Viator was somewhat in awe of what Vereen and the other Panthers receivers did.
"Well, it was about five one-handed catches," Viator said. "When they needed to make a play, they made it. Give them credit for that.
"Not that we didn't think they were capable of it, but their wide receivers made a bunch of great plays tonight."
Vereen laughed when asked about his night, joking "I think I used two hands on two" of his catches.
But he and his quarterback were dead serious when they said the win was a statement to the rest of the country about what this team is made of.
"I think it was (a statement game)," said quarterback Sawyer Kollmorgen, who finished 16-27 for 288 yards and three touchdowns. "We knew it was going to be a tough game for us. We built it up to be a playoff game in our minds, so we treated it like that."
Almost flying under the radar due to the circus catches from Vereen was star running back David Johnson, who finished with 195 yards of total offense – 108 receiving, 87 rushing – and three total touchdowns.
A performance like that not being the biggest story of the game almost made Farley more excited than anything else because of what it means for his team.
"We're just playing consistent," Farley said. "You guys (the media) asked me about Vereen, (receiver Chad) Owens, Kollmorgen – I mean, it's nice to hear a bunch of names thrown out there instead of David all the time. That's what's making us good. It's not just one guy right now. If we can keep doing that, I think we'll always have a chance."
So yes, the Panthers have reason to celebrate Saturday night after the big win.
But neither Farley nor the players are about to rest on what they were able to do against the Cowboys, because of what looms a week from last night: a matchup against No. 1 North Dakota State on the road.
"For our football team I think that was a great win – tonight. Tomorrow, we'll talk about North Dakota State and get ready for them," Farley said. "To have success like that ... I'm excited for that, but I also know the road doesn't get any easier. We're going on the road to Fargo next week, and this one will get put behind in the next 24 hours because we have to get ready for that."