CEDAR FALLS -- The Missouri Valley Football Conference threw down the gauntlet and challenged the Northern Iowa football team.
The Panthers owned the gauntlet.
For the third time in four weeks, UNI knocked off a FCS top-ten opponent as the Panthers slew sixth-ranked South Dakota, 34-23, inside the UNI-Dome in front of 10,814.
It was UNI's fourth consecutive game against a team ranked in the top ten.
The Panthers (5-4, 4-2) turned a pair of Coyote (7-2, 4-2) turnovers into 14 points, 39 seconds apart, late in the fourth quarter to rally from a 23-20 deficit.
"Just happy for our football team," UNI head coach Mark Farley. "They stayed the course, stayed in plan and good things happened for them. They made some things happen down the stretch."
"Just happy because the time they put in paid off for them because they earned that one. They worked hard for it."
UNI scored 17 points off three USD turnovers, but none bigger than 14 points off two turnovers late in the fourth quarter with the Panthers playoff hopes on the line needing another big victory.
The first turnover came when Bryce Douglas forced a Kai Henry fumble, and Jared Farley recovered it and returned it 23 yards to the USD 11. Two plays later, Marcus Weymiller darted untouched into the end zone on an eight-yard scoring run to give the Panthers their first lead, 27-23, with 3:02 left in the game.
"We had some chances today and we did some things we don't typically do ... turn the ball over," USD head coach Bob Nielsen said.
Then on a third-and-13 play, Coyote quarterback Chris Streveler threw late while on the run, and Keelon Brookins intercepted it returning it 29 yards for a touchdown and a 34-23 lead.
"What we're we trying to do? Win the football game," Brookins said of the big defensive plays. "It is a team game, and the defense stepped up and did our half."
There was probably one bigger defensive play than the last two.
The Coyotes had a second and goal at the UNI 2 with 8:47 left in the fourth quarter with a chance to go up two scores, already leading 23-20. But UNI forced Streveler out of the pocket with a good push up the middle, and his throw into the end zone intended for Dakari Allen, was tipped by Elijah Campbell, and picked off by Xavior Williams.
"That was a phenomenal sequence," Farley said. "What I know is our players ... it took great belief when you are sitting on the three-yard line and they are going into score, finish down there.
"We were gassed. We were tired.
"But we we're leaving it on the field, and we made a play. Then we made another play on the fumble, and then the intercept for the touchdown. It was a great sequence of plays and that is how you win," finished Farley.
USD scored with 11 seconds left, but Weymiller recovered the ensuing onside kick and that sealed the victory.
"When you have a chance to take a two-score lead against a team like that, you have to take advantage of that and we didn't do that," Nielsen said of the interception in the end zone.
Offensively, UNI was on and off all game long, but delivered most when it needed. Eli Dunne was 14 of 24 for 228 yards, hitting Isaiah Weston for a 59-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter, and a four-yard score that made it 23-20 late in the third.
But after scuffling most of the fourth, Farley's fumble return set the Panthers up at the Coyote 11, and they were determined to punch it in.
"We kind of hit a little stall there, and our defense was telling us it is alright," tight end Briley Moore said. "When he got that fumble, I sure hope somebody got video of our sideline. It was amazing and what we needed as a team, as a offense."
South Dakota led 16-13 at halftime, but were forced to settle for three field goals on three different trips inside the red zone after scoring a touchdown on its opening drive.
"That is big. That was the No. 1 offense in the nation," Brookins said of holding the Coyotes to those field goals. "Like I said in previous interviews, we bend, but we don't break and we didn't break."
With the victory UNI is now in better control of its postseason plans with games at 3-6 Missouri State next Saturday, and at home to close the season against winless Indiana State to close the season.
"What I'm excited about is for the fans and everybody that was there and that kind of excitement," Mark Farley said. "That kind of game is exactly what you hope for when you come to watch a UNI football game.
"But it is one win. There is still a lot of work to do."