CARBONDALE, Ill. | Start to finish Northern Iowa finally played a game its wanted to play, and the Panthers needed every second of that good play.
Coming off a tough loss at Southern Utah two weeks ago, UNI lead from start to finish as it opened Missouri Valley Football Conference play with a 24-17 victory over Southern Illinois at Saluki Stadium Saturday.
The offense clicked in the first half, and the defense forced three fourth quarter turnovers to halt a Saluki comeback.
Eli Dunne was 26 of 36 for 266 yards and three touchdowns, while UNI's beleaguered running attack was game all night long with Trevor Allen and J'Veyon Browning combining for 152 yards on 39 carries.
The Panthers (2-2 overall and 1-0 in MVFC) led 24-10 after three quarters, but SIU had multiple cracks to tie it late.
With 9:37 left, Jeff Varble fumbled after a 14-yard pass reception and Suni Lane recovered at the UNI 10. Then with 1:47 left, Jake Hartford picked off a tipped pass at the UNI nine to thwart another Saluki scoring chance.
Malcolm Washington sealed the victory with UNI's second pick and third forced turnover with 10 seconds left as the Panthers have now forced at least one turnover in 13 consecutive games.
UNI led 17-3 at halftime, but SIU got to within a touchdown with 4:13 left in the third quarter only to watch the Panthers go 86 yards in seven plays getting a Dunne 11-yard pass to Allen for a 24-10 lead with 59 seconds left in the third quarter.
The Panthers played perhaps their best half of the season while taking a 17-3 lead into the break. Dunne completed 16 of 20 for 172 yards in the half, while Fountain had six catches for 105 yards and a touchdown.
Sam Drysdale opened the scoring for UNI with a 45-yard field goal with 4:01 left in the first quarter. Then Dunne found Fountain just 37 seconds into the second quarter for a 10-0 lead. It is Fountain's fourth touchdown catch against the Salukis in the two games.
SIU got a 32-yard Matt Sotiropoulos field goal with 4:24 left in the second quarter, but UNI was impressive in going 80 yards in 5 plays, 42 of them on a Dunne to Fountain connection to score with Nissen catching and diving into the end zone from the four with 2:09 to halftime.
For Nissen, a junior, it was his first career touchdown reception.
Defensively, Elijah Campbell, who missed the Southern Utah game made several nice plays in the defensive backfield, while Preston Woods and Adam Reth did a good job of controlling the line of scrimmage.