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Monday, September 17, 2007 12:04 PM CDT
Lewis, Sanders keys to Panthers' third win
By DOUG NEWHOFF, Sports Editor

CEDAR FALLS -- A few minutes after fourth-ranked Northern Iowa put the finishing touches on Saturday night's 31-17 victory at South Dakota State, Corey Lewis joined his teammates for the quarter-mile walk to the visitors' dressing room.

The Panther junior's jersey was stained with grass and mud, and the evidence of 60 minutes of intense physical activity pulled at his posture. Yet the smile never left his face.

"I'm good, I'm good," said the Panthers' tailback after a workhorse effort that included 125 rushing yards, 164 receiving yards and three touchdowns for a UNI offense that generated a total of 514 yards.

"Really," Lewis continued, "I'm exhausted, and I'm a little banged-up. But all in all, I'm good."

Lewis, who was named the Gateway Conference Offensive Player of the Week for his performance, was the one offensive option the Jackrabbits couldn't account for Saturday. They limited UNI's downfield passing game with an aggressive blitz package, but they paid a price in big plays from the explosive tailback.

Lewis broke off runs covering 22 and 44 yards while slipping out of the backfield for pass receptions of 19, 13, 20, 13 and 60 yards.

"That's just kind of how it developed," said the junior from St. Paul, Neb. "On a couple of the plays, we saw how they were playing us, so we slipped me out of the backfield on a couple of routes. It worked, so we kept doing it."

With Darian Williams, who normally shares time at tailback, out for the second straight game while recovering from an injury, the Panthers needed a productive night from all their veterans, and they got it.

"You can start with Eric Sanders," head coach Mark Farley said Sunday after watching the film of his quarterback completing 27 of 32 passes for 330 yards. "We named him our player of the week, and it was hard to give it to Eric after the numbers Corey put up."

Whitney Lewis also had five key receptions, while Johnny Gray grabbed four passes and Victor Williams and Terrell Allen three apiece. When Corey Lewis needed a break, Derrick Law stepped in to rush for 44 yards on 11 carries and catch an 8-yard pass.

UNI's offensive line earned a few kudos, as well. They not only paved the way for 184 rushing yards, but gave Sanders enough time to dissect the Jackrabbits' defense despite heavy pressure that did get through for three sacks.

"Those guys deserve a lot of credit," Lewis said of his friends on the front line.

Defensively, the Panthers overcame a shaky start when they surrendered a 57-yard touchdown pass to hold a hard-nosed SDSU attack to 208 net yards during the final 49 1/2 minutes.

"We kind of got into a groove," said senior linebacker Brannon Carter, who led a balanced UNI defense with eight tackles.

Farley liked a lot of what he saw but especially the composure his team showed in a hostile environment when things didn't go UNI's way early.

"We had some mental errors during that first quarter that we hadn't had the first couple of games," he noted. "I think that was kind of what we anticipated. But we settled down, and once we got to the third quarter we started playing football the way we did the first couple of weeks.

"Every team goes through that. Good teams overcome it and adjust. We did that."

The kicking game was the one albatross that will be addressed during practice this week. UNI had an extra point and two field goals blocked, misfired on a field-goal snap and recovered just one of three South Dakota State onside kicks, although the Jackrabbits were called offsides on the two they were able to cover.

"We definitely need to take this football game and the mistakes we made and learn from them," said Farley. "One priority will be special teams. We have to go back and reconnect with that whole phase of the game and make sure we shore up those loose ends.

"We had done a good job in that area, but those things reared their head in this game. Whatever that little something was that we were missing early in this particular game, it was magnified on special teams."

So, UNI escaped a potential letdown and an opponent that was determined to make a name for itself against a highly ranked opponent.

The Panthers may have teams like Appalachian State, Drake and Iowa State to thank for that.

"I think everyone is more aware of what can happen," said Farley. "Coaches are always wary of upsets, but now it's been even more highlighted. We've seen these teams consistently going into places they're not supposed to win and either winning or making a heck of a game of it.

"I think everybody is aware of the caliber of football that's out there. On any given Saturday, anything can happen. I think the experience of our team and the experience of our past definitely helped us weather that threat when South Dakota State got the initial lead on us."

UNI faces another opponent that will be wired with motivation Saturday when the Panthers visit Drake for a 4 p.m. kickoff.

Contact Doug Newhoff at (319) 291-1467 or doug.newhoff@wcfcourier.com