GREELEY, Colo. — Northern Colorado tried to put the brakes on David Johnson.

That tactic led the Bears right to a dead end.

Northern Iowa found just enough ways to move the football and make key defensive stops to claim a 26-7 victory Saturday at Nottingham Field.

The seventh-ranked Panthers improved to 3-0, their best season-opening mark since 2007. Johnson rushed for 121 yards, his ninth straight time over the 100-mark. Kevin Vereen and Phil Wright made big catches to convert third downs on a drive culminated by a Johnson 18-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.

Tyler Sievertsen booted a career-high four field goals and Collin Albrecht had two huge sacks that blunted UNC scoring threats.

All of that happened. Very little of it happened easily. Yet, UNI found answers and multiple ways to win a football game.

“It means we got a lot of options on this team,” said Albrecht, a senior and the former Cedar Falls athlete. “If one guy is having a slow day, we can go with someone else. It’s really good for our team. The defense can step up and shut it down if the offense is going a little bit slow and vice-versa. ”

Head coach Mark Farley noted that the atmosphere, with a crowd of just 3,025 in the seats, may have slowed down UNI emotionally. The Panthers overcame that obstacle, too.

“I saw a workman-type effort. I saw a lot of positives,” said Farley. “We had to grind that thing out.”

The grinding started early. UNI made good use of quick wide receiver screen passes from Sawyer Kollmorgen to Chad Owens to fashion a 13-play, 7 minute and 30 second drive. Owens finished the deal with a 7-yard catch at the 5:21 mark of the opening quarter.

“You know, I felt like (the Bears) were keying on David a little bit this game,” said Owens. “We knew we were gonna have to throw the ball a little bit. The first drive was nice, getting a few catches and trying to help my team out. That’s what I was trying to do.

“It was a long series, and it was nice to get in the end zone.

With the Bear defense aimed directly at stopping Johnson, the junior running back had just 18 yards at the half.

UNI built a 10-0 lead at the break, with Sievertsen booting a 28-yard field goal in the second quarter and the defense kept the UNC offense out of the end zone.

Northern Colorado, a Big Sky Conference member, hung on for the better part of three quarters, closing within 13-7, before UNI broke free in the fourth.

Johnson, finally finding some running room, scored on an 18-yard run and Sievertsen added field goals of 31 and 27 yards. Albrecht contributed a big fourth-sack of quarterback Tim Tancik, who filled in for an injured Seth Lobato.

The Panther defense adjusted when Northern Colorado sent as many as three blockers at nose tackle Xavier Williams. Pressure from end Chris Jepsen also helped Albrecht enjoy a big day.

“That makes it easier when Jepsen’s flushing them my way,” said Albrecht. “I’m on (Tancik’s) blind side so the only thing I could do was tackle him.”

UNI also got a solid passing day from Kollmorgen. The sophomore went 19-for-27, good for 248 yards and the TD. Owens caught 7 balls for 77 yards and Johnson had 5 for 54.

Charles Brown chipped his first career interception and UNI’s first of 2013. That pick was one of several clutch performances for UNI in the opening half.

Albrecht’s sack for a 16-yard loss forced Dave Eden to try a 37-yard field goal that missed. Eden also missed, from 25 away, when the Panthers halted the Bears at the 8

The Panthers play McNeese State next Saturday. Right now, they’re 3-0.

“Overall, for four quarters, we just worked at it,” said Farley. “It didn’t have the excitement of Iowa State, so you really have to grind these games out. To win on the road in the Big Sky is tough to do.”

Contact Jim Sullivan jim.sullivan@wcfcourier.com.

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