CEDAR FALLS | Northern Iowa searched for solutions.
The Panthers didn't find the ones they needed when they needed them the most.
Just when UNI had a way to rectify its problems and end a two-game slump, things fell apart. A three-touchdown, second-half lead vanished into thin air and UNI then lost in double overtime to South Dakota, 38-31.
How? How do the Panthers go from 4-0 and the fourth-ranked team in the Football Championship Subdivision to 4-3 and losers of three straight Missouri Valley Football Conference games? How does a team that has David Johnson back in high gear, Chad Owens making big catches and Evan Williams providing the offensive help so desperately needed come up short?
Head coach Mark Farley was one of the people looking for reasons when asked how the game changed in the minutes after the Panthers owned a 28-7 lead with 5 minutes, 54 seconds to go in the third quarter.
"I'll have to go back and look because that was the question I was asking," said Farley.
Farley then offered some solutions to that problem.
"But I know this: They hit some passes they shouldn't have hit to get out of trouble. We had some breakdowns in coverages.
"We didn't do anything on offense after we got up, 28-7. And, you gotta keep the pedal on and keep moving. We didn't do that. We gave them a second wind and they came back and beat us."
South Dakota (4-3, 3-1), got the lead for the first and only time when quarterback Kevin Earl sneaked a yard for a touchdown to begin double overtime.
UNI needed a solution to that 7-point deficit, and couldn't find it. Instead, quarterback Sawyer Kollmorgen was sacked by USD defensive end Emilious Davis on fourth-and-3 at the Coyote 6. That's where it ended, and the frustration began.
"We fully expected to win that game," said linebacker Jordan Gacke.
Said running back David Johnson, "It's very frustrating to lose that close of a game that we were winning the whole time."
That winning sense seemed very strong for 2-1/2 quarters.
UNI built a 14-7 halftime lead on a 48-yard Kollmorgen to Owens touchdown pass and the first TD of Williams' career - a 1-yard run.
Two special teams gifts - both bad snaps out of punt formation - gave the Panthers opportunities. Wiliams' 4-yard run and Johnson's 7-yarder made it 28-7.
It all seemed to be going UNI's way. Johnson had over 100 yards rushing on the way to 181. The defense was slowing down the Coyote attack.
"Obviously, up by 28-7 and up by three touchdowns, you know, you can be pretty confident," said Gacke.
"We let this one slip away," added the UNI linebacker. "They made the big plays they needed to, and we didn't."
The slippage began when Earl connected with Riley Donovan, a true freshman walk-on receiver who began the year as a redshirt, for a 43-yard touchdown pass. That combination killed UNI's secondary all day, with Donovan grabbing nine passes for 144 yards.
Offensively, the mistakes flooded the UNI-Dome turf. Kollmorgen, who had been intercepted just once in the Panthers' first six games, threw two in the fourth quarter alone. One, picked off by USD's Jarrid Bryant when a receiver fell downfield, became an 8-yard touchdown run by Earl. That score pulled the Coyotes within 28-21 at the 11:26 mark of the fourth quarter.
Then, with one final chance at a tie and overtime. South Dakota cashed in, with the help of a pass interference call on Blake White. On fourth down, Earl found Terrance Terry, who established control of the ball in the end zone before being pushed out. Touchdown, South Dakota with five seconds to go in regulation.
Farley, though, felt Earl got new life, thanks to his defense. The Panthers, he said, failed to to sack Earl on third down, a play that would have ended the game. South Dakota did not have any time outs left.
"We missed a stinkin' sack with five seconds to go," he said. "That game was over. Nobody remembers that. I remember that because the game was over. We blew the sack ... and got another down. Another down, they got the touchdown.
"You can point to some other stuff, but it happened throughout that whole fourth quarter. A couple plays like that, and we're not sitting here talking like this."
The loss was costly beyond the final score. Safety Tim Kilfoy drew a first-half disqualification when he flagged for targeting a USD receiver. Cornerback Jamison Whiting suffered an injury. Xavier Williams limped off the field, although he returned. And defensive end Collin Albrecht never played, thanks to injury.
But the win was there. UNI had solved its losing streak. The Panthers would get back on their feet.
Now, the season is a mystery. What happens now?
"We've got to be ready to go next game." said Johnson.