Champaign, Ill. – The Northern Illinois Huskies went toe-to-toe with another Big Ten Conference foe Saturday, battling in-state foe Illinois down to the final play at Memorial Stadium in Champaign before falling to the Illini, 28-22.
Northern Illinois fell to 1-2 on the season with the loss while Illinois improved to 2-1 and earned its fourth win all-time over NIU.
“In the end, it was about running the football and them making six or seven more plays than we did,” said NIU Head Coach Jerry Kill. “I think we took some strides today. I think the greatest sign is that we are getting better as a football team and that is what I am excited about. I think we have a good football team.”
With Kill on the sidelines despite spending much of the week in a Chicago hospital, the Huskies claimed a 12-7 lead in the first quarter. After Illinois scored in just 1:54 on its first drive of the game on a nine-yard run by quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, the Huskies came back with a pair of scores.
NIU quarterback Chandler Harnish, who finished the game with a season-best 208 yards on 19-of-25 passing, hit Nate Palmer with a 42-yard completion on a post-pattern to the Illinois one-yard line. From there, tailback Chad Spann scored on a one-yard run. The Huskies attempted a two-point play, but Harnish’s pass to kicker Mathew Sims fell incomplete and NIU trailed 7-6.
The Huskie defense forced Illinois to punt and Northern Illinois took a 12-6 lead on its ensuing possession when Harnish sprang free on a 37-yard touchdown run. The NIU junior finished with his second straight 100-yard rushing day as he ran for 117 yards on 11 carries. Sims’ PAT kick hit the post and was no good, leaving the Huskies with a five-point lead, 12-7.
Illinois came back with an 11-point second quarter to take an 18-12 halftime lead. UI kicker Derek Dimke opened the quarter with a 25-yard field goal after the Huskie defense stopped the Illini at the eight-yard line. The teams traded possessions until Illinois put together a nine-play, 66-yard drive, scoring on an eight-yard run by Jason Ford. Scheelhaase added the two point conversion to provide Illinois with a six-point halftime margin, 18-12.
After a scoreless third quarter that featured both punters, Northern Illinois opened the fourth quarter in Illinois territory at the 46-yard line. But Harnish fumbled after a 15-yard pick-up to give the ball back to the Illini. Two possessions later, Illinois extended its lead to 21-12 on a 32-yard Dimke field goal as the Huskie defense once again forced the three-point try.
Northern Illinois came back quickly. Harnish took the ball to the UI 19 with a career-long 47-yard run and on the next play, tailback Jasmin Hopkins ran to the right before stopping and lofting a pass to receiver Landon Cox in the end zone, who made the catch for the 19-yard touchdown. Illinois transfer Michael Cklamovski added the PAT and the Huskies were within two at 21-19.
Illinois got the ball back with six minutes remaining and converted a fourth-and-one play en route to the decisive touchdown. UI tailback Mikel Leshoure went the final 29 yards on a rush, part of his 180 rushing yards on the day.
The Huskies were not done, though. NIU drove to the Illinois 31 on six plays and Cklamovski kicked his first career field goal – a 48-yarder – with 19 seconds remaining to pull Northern Illinois within six points. However, Illinois recovered the onside kick attempt to thwart NIU’s final chance.
Harnish totaled 325 yards of total offense in the game, and posted the best completion percentage of his career. Cox caught a team-leading six passes with tight end Jack Marks and receiver Martel Moore snagging five passes each. The Huskie defense allowed Scheelhaase to complete just eight of 16 passes for 70 yards in the game.
“[Chandler] played a tremendous opponent and got better today,” Kill said. “He just needs to keep getting better. We are very pleased at the progress he is making for this football team and I think our football team is excited about that.”
The Huskies take on their second consecutive Big Ten opponent this Saturday as they travel to Minneapolis, Minn. for a 7:30 p.m. game versus the Golden Gophers.
For more information on NIU football and Huskie athletics, visit www.niuhuskies.com.