With four minutes remaining on the clock in The Big House – the fabled home of the University of Michigan Wolverines – the Akron Zips stand atop the scoreboard, 24-21.
One minute and 16 seconds later, Michigan delivers its seven-point answer: No. But with 2:49 left to play, the Zips confidently and briskly march back down the field. With 36 seconds remaining, they reach the red zone. A 15-yard pass puts them first-and-goal from the 1-yard line.
Fifteen ticks to go.
Yet the Zips cannot punch the ball across, the end zone proving elusive. Game over. Final score: Michigan, 28. Akron, 24.
Coach Terry Bowden and the Zips, who haven’t won a game since then, arrive Saturday at Huskie Stadium for NIU’s 107th Homecoming. Despite their 1-5 record, it’s that oh-so-close Sept. 14 contest in Ann Arbor holding court in NIU coach Rod Carey’s mind.
“Turn on that Michigan film, and you can see that this is a much improved football team. In my estimation, and this is my opinion, I think they lost the Michigan game but Michigan did not beat them,” Carey says.
“They pushed around Michigan all day. I know they had some opportunities they wished they capitalized on and certainly had opportunities to get that win,” he adds. “Coach Bowden is doing a great job in the second year of his system, and those guys are believing in it and are executing it a ton better. So it’s going to be a good challenge for us.”
So will the Zips create and complete those opportunities when they stride into the home of the MAC’s Goliath, the No. 23 NIU Huskies?
Game time is 4 p.m., and, as always, ALL NIU STUDENTS ARE ADMITTED FREE WITH THEIR NIU OneCards. (The game also will be televised on ESPN3 and broadcast on WSCR 670 AM, WLBK 1360 AM and 98.9 FM and WTJK 1380 AM.)
The Huskies, 39-8 since the start of the 2010 season, have won 26 of their last 28 games dating back to Oct. 1, 2011. NIU, playing in DeKalb for only the second time this season, owns the country’s longest streak of home wins at 22 straight.
Coach Carey is counting on a massive turnout to keep that record going.
“Our fans have certainly set expectations through the roof about their attendance and their involvement in our game, specifically our students. With what happened at Eastern Illinois? An unbelievable crowd we had there,” he says. “Our expectations of the crowd are no less for this one if not more being Homecoming. We know we will have more alumni around. We want them to be loud when they’re on offense and not when we’re on offense.”
There was plenty to scream about last Saturday, when NIU won 38-24.
Led by tailback Cameron Stingily’s 266 rushing yards on 37 carries, Northern Illinois ran for 454 yards and compiled 698 yards of total offense at Kent State, the third-highest total all-time.
“We take a lot of pride in it. That’s what the offensive line wants to do,” center Andrew Ness says. “You just want to run the ball. It’s a big emphasis at this school because we have a lot of great running backs.”
“For the most part we’re trying to be as physical as possible and dominate the line of scrimmage on every play and create holes for Cameron and Jordan (Lynch) or whoever at tailback to run the ball and have success,” fullback Rob Sterling says. “We’re not always the person that’s going to get the glory for getting the runs or getting the touchdowns, but we’re definitely a part of the offense.”
Coach Carey agrees: NIU’s offensive line is “an interesting group.”
“What happened in 2011 is that the young guys, who were waiting in the wings, they took a hold of something and they took pride in being who they were. They didn’t try and be somebody else,” he says. “So when their time came last year, we were not going to try to be the Trevor Olsons or the Scott Wediges, because that was a great group. We were going to try to be ourselves. So they have gained their identity.”