Tailback Chad Spann ran for 223 yards and two touchdowns, including a game-clinching 61-yard run with 6:22 left, as Northern Illinois claimed its second win over a Big Ten Conference team in the last two seasons with a 34-23 win over Minnesota Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.
NIU won for just the third time ever against the Big Ten, adding its first victory all-time over the Golden Gophers to its 2009 win over Purdue. The Huskies evened their record at 2-2 on the season and open Mid-American Conference play at Akron next Saturday. Minnesota fell to 1-3.
“This was a great win for our kids and for our fans and all the compliments go to our coaches who did a great job preparing our team and putting together a game plan,” said NIU Head Coach Jerry Kill. “The bottom line is we ran the ball and we stopped the run. We made plays at the end of the game to finish the game and we did the little things tonight to win.”
Spann’s night included touchdown runs of three and 61 yards. His 56-yard run in the first quarter set up the Huskies’ first score and he added a 33-yard run in the second quarter as his 223 yards came on just 15 carries. He averaged 14.9 yards per carry. It was the first 200-yard rushing game for Northern Illinois since Garrett Wolfe went for 203 versus Central Michigan in 2006 and the 25th-highest single game rushing total by a Huskie back.
On the other side of the ball, the Huskie defense was stout against the run, allowing Minnesota just 97 rushing yards on 32 carries, a week after giving up 349 yards on the ground at Illinois. The Huskie defense also made plays when it counted, as Minnesota was forced to try four field goals and NIU twice stopped the Golden Gophers on fourth down, including on a critical possession in the fourth quarter.
The Huskies’ special teams also contributed to the victory with true freshman Jimmie Ward’s blocked punt just before halftime setting up a crucial touchdown for NIU. Ward blocked Minnesota punter Dan Orseske’s first effort and Northern Illinois took possession on the 11-yard line. On third down with only seconds left in the half, Chandler Harnish hit Martel Moore in the corner of the endzone with a touchdown pass and NIU took momentum and a 20-13 lead into the lockerroom at halftime.
“There is nothing like a blocked punt and that was a big play in the football game,” Kill said. “Jimmie Ward is a big-time player. He is special. He probably should have blocked three punts tonight.”
Minnesota tallied the only score of the third quarter as Eric Ellestad hit a 21-yard field goal to close the Huskies’ lead to 20-16. It was as close as the Gophers would get.
Fullback Connor Flahive caught a two-yard touchdown pass from Chandler Harnish on third and goal to extend NIU’s lead to 27-16 with 13:35 remaining in the fourth quarter. Flahive’s catch finished a five-play, 67-yard drive.
“Great call on third down by the coaches there, and great catch by Connor,” Kill said. “I darn near closed my eyes the ball seemed to take so long to get there.”
Three plays after the Huskie defense stopped Minnesota on fourth and one from the Huskie 21-yard line with 7:17 left in the game, Spann took the handoff and, breaking multiple tackles, went 61 yards to the end zone to give NIU a 34-16 lead.
Kicker Michael Cklamovski made a pair of field goals for NIU and converted on all four of his PAT tries. Cornerback Chris Smith made nine tackles, seven solo, and Kiaree Daniels and Devon Butler added eight each to lead the Huskies, but it was a total team effort by the defense, offense and special teams that gave NIU its second signature win over a Big Ten Conference team in two years.
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