Northern Illinois had the school’s first MAC Championship since 1983 a fingertip away Friday night, holding onto a 21-20 lead in the final two minutes of the 2010 Marathon MAC Championship game at Ford Field.
All the Huskies had to do was stop Miami on fourth and 20 with 1:51 on the clock and the RedHawks on their own 38-yard line. From there, the Huskies would run out the clock, win their school-record 11th game of the year and set a school record for consecutive wins with 10.
On this night, in which nothing played true to form, neither would fourth and 20. After a Miami timeout, RedHawk redshirt freshman Austin Boucher dropped back, felt pressure up the middle and rolled to his left. He lofted the football down the middle of the field, where three Huskie defenders leapt to knock it down. But the pass was too good. Even after an NIU defender got his fingertips on the ball, it went past the defense into the hands of Chris Givens for 31 yards and a Miami first down.
Two plays later, with just 33 seconds on the clock, Boucher caught the Huskies in a blitz and hit Adrian Robinson for 33 yards and his only passing touchdown of the night, giving the RedHawks a 26-21 lead.
After the two-point conversion failed and Tommy Davis’ kickoff return to the 30-yard line, Northern Illinois was still fighting. NIU record-setting quarterback Chandler Harnish, led the Huskies downfield, hitting Willie Clark for 14 yards, Perez Ashford for 13 and Nathan Palmer for 11.
With 10 seconds on the clock, NIU was within striking distance on the Miami 32-yard line. Harnish’s next pass to Clark went incomplete. Then, with five seconds remaining, Harnish dropped back, scanned the field, and saw that Clark was covered. He stepped up in the pocket, but the RedHawks’ Austin Brown caught him from behind, sacking the NIU quarterback for the third time on the night, ending the game and clinching the championship for the underdog RedHawks.
Northern Illinois Head Coach Jerry Kill summed up the difference in the game very simply.
“They made the plays and we didn’t,” he said. “Their kids played hard, we played hard. That was a great football game. They made a few more plays than we did, and that’s what got us at the end. I’m proud of our team. We won 10 games and we get another one. It’s not easy to get here. We did it the hard way with eight games on the road.
“We’ll bounce back. They’ll go back to work and learn. This hurts, and it should hurt. That’s part of life – you don’t win all the time. This is when you find out who you are.”
Senior linebacker Alex Kube spoke for the Huskie players about how they would deal with the bitter defeat.
“I’m not going to sit here and lie to you. It hurts. It’s painful,” Kube said. “But Coach [Kill] has done a great job of training us to make sure we can move on. I’m sorry for our community, I’m sorry for our program, but I’m telling you we’ll bounce back from this and we’ll play the bowl game and we’ll play it tough, just like we do every week.”
The Huskies played tough Friday night, as did the RedHawks. Both offenses had the upper hand in the first quarter and it looked like a shoot out was in store. Miami took an early 6-0 lead, driving 80 yards in eight plays on its first possession, with Thomas Merriweather getting the drive started with a 47-yard pick-up and finishing the drive with a one-yard touchdown run on fourth and goal. NIU’s Mike Krause blocked the PAT, and until the final minute, that looked to be one of the biggest plays of the game.
NIU responded with the first of three long touchdown passes by Harnish on the night. Harnish hit Martel Moore on the first of two long touchdown passes – this one for a season-long 69-yards – and Mike Cklamovski’s PAT put the Huskies ahead 7-6.
After Miami took the lead on a seven-yard touchdown run by Tracy Woods, Harnish and Moore hooked up for a 27-yard touchdown at the end of the first quarter and the Huskies led 14-13.
The Northern Illinois defense then began to assert itself. The RedHawks gained 106 yards on the ground in the first quarter, but finished the game with only 99 rushing yards thanks to five sacks by NIU defenders, including two by senior Jake Coffman.
The Huskies missed a golden opportunity to extend their lead when Nathan Palmer dropped a touchdown pass early in the second quarter and the teams combined for five punts in the period. NIU thwarted a Miami threat at the end of the half as MU drove to the NIU 25-yard line. Coffman blocked Trevor Cook’s field goal attempt and the Huskies had a 14-13 halftime lead.
Miami took the lead on the first drive of the second quarter as they took the opening kickoff and went 10 plays in 82 yards. Merriweather scored on a one-yard run for his second rushing touchdown of the day and the RedHawks took a 20-14 lead. MU had a chance to extend the lead minutes later. Following a Huskie fumble, Miami drove to the NIU five-yard line. Lined up for a short field goal try, the RedHawks instead tried the fake with holder Mike Scherpenberg running the ball. He was stopped short by NIU’s Tyrone Clark to keep it a six-point game.
NIU re-claimed the lead on the first play of the final period when Harnish hit Willie Clark on a 39-yard pass to the end zone to finish a five-play, 89-yard drive. Cklamovski’s PAT again put the Huskies ahead, 21-20.
Following that score, the teams again traded punts, but the RedHawks held the upper hand in terms of field position. Northern Illinois’ last punt came after Miami forced NIU into a three-and-out on their own three-yard line and the RedHawks started their fateful final drive from their own 48-yard line with 2:48 on the clock.
Harnish tied his season high with 281 yards on 15-of-28 passing and three scores, breaking George Bork’s 47-year-old record for single season total offense along the way. Moore’s 110 receiving yards gave NIU its first 100-yard receiving day of the year and his career best day. NIU leading rusher Chad Spann finished the game with 54 carries on 17 yards as Miami used as many as nine defenders to stop the run throughout the game.
Miami’s Boucher completed 29-of-46 passes for 333 yards on the night while Robinson had 176 receiving yards on 14 catches. The East Division champion RedHawks improved their record to 9-4 on the year with the win while the Huskies fell to 10-3.
NIU now awaits its bowl fate. The MAC will announce bowl destinations for its teams Sunday evening.