Chandler Harnish threw his sixth touchdown pass of the game, a four-yard completion to Perez Ashford with 19 seconds left, and the Huskie defense stopped Toledo in the final seconds, giving Northern Illinois a 63-60 win over Toledo at the Glass Bowl Tuesday night before a national television audience on ESPN2.
The win, which featured a Mid-American Conference record (for a non-overtime game) 123 points, lifted Northern Illinois into a first-place tie with the Rockets in the Mid-American Conference West Division and gave the Huskies their fourth victory in a row.
NIU improved its record to 6-3 overall, 4-1 in the MAC and became the league’s first team to become bowl eligible. Toledo’s record fell to 5-4 overall, 4-1 in the MAC.
“I’ve been involved in a lot of good games, but that was as good as it gets,” said NIU Head Coach Dave Doeren. “I knew we were going to score [the last touchdown], I could see it in [the offense’s] eyes. We had been executing all night.”
The Huskies’ game-winning drive came after Toledo had taken a 60-56 lead with 4:16 left on the clock on a three-yard run by Adonis Thomas and Ryan Casano’s extra point.
Northern Illinois got the ball on the 34 yard line and advanced to the Toledo 27 on a 17 yard rush by Harnish, who had 133 yards on 16 carries on the night, and a 22 yard pick-up by Akeem Daniels.
A pair of completions – to Daniels and Anthony Johnson – sandwiched around a Harnish seven-yard rush gave NIU the ball at the Toledo four-yard line. After a pair of penalties pushed Northern Illinois back to the 13, Harnish ran for nine yards, then hit Ashford for the final score.
In addition to his 133 rushing yards, Harnish completed 17-of-26 passes for 265 yards. His six touchdowns were the second-most in Northern Illinois history, and the most since Phil Horvath threw for six scores versus Akron in 2005.
“You could see it in warm-ups, Chandler was going to do whatever it took today,” Doeren said. “I’ll be lucky to ever coach another one like him.”
Thomas, who gained a game-high 160 rushing yards on 25 carries, scored a pair of touchdowns for the Rockets on the day. His effort paled in comparison to that of the Rockets’ Eric Page, who caught five touchdown passes from UT quarterback Austin Dantin on nine catches. NIU’s Nathan Palmer nearly matched Page as three of his four catches went for scores, including one on a season-long 71-yard pass from Harnish.
Huskie freshman Tommylee Lewis provided all the offense Northern Illinois would need to start the game as he ran the opening kickoff back 100 yards for a touchdown to record his first career kickoff return TD. After Toledo scored on a 12-yard pass from Dantin to Page to cap a nine-play, 67-yard drive, Lewis brought back the NEXT kickoff back 95 yards for a score to shock the crowd and give the Huskies a 14-7 lead with 10:16 to go in the quarter.
Lewis set the NIU school record for kickoff return scores in a game and tied the single season and career marks. He tied the NCAA mark for kickoff return scores in a game and broke the NIU mark for kickoff return yards in a game.
“I have been waiting for Tommylee to break out like that,” Doeren said. “I didn’t expect him to take it to the house twice though.”
Toledo answered Lewis’ second score when Dantin again hit Page on a 12-yard touchdown connection to conclude a six-play, 59-yard drive, tying the game at 14.
Northern Illinois clung to a 28-24 lead at halftime on the strength of Lewis’ two kickoff return scores and a pair of Harnish to Palmer touchdown hook-ups. After NIU went ahead 28-14 on the second of those two connections, a season-long 71-yard pass with 9:59 to play in the half, Toledo responded.
The Rockets put together a 13-play, 64-yard drive that ended in the third Dantin to Page touchdown pass of the game, this one from five yards out. After the Huskies were forced to punt, Toledo drove 48 yards in 10 plays to the NIU 24-yard line. From there, Jeremiah Detmer’s 41-yard field goal attempt was good to put the score at 28-24, Northern Illinois.
The teams traded touchdowns in the third quarter. Toledo got the ball to start the second half and drove 58 yards in nine plays to take its first lead of the game, 31-28 with Dantin scoring on a five-yard run. NIU answered four plays and 74 yards later when Harnish hit Da’Ron Brown from 16 yards out and the Huskies claimed a 35-31 lead. That lead was short-lived as Page took a screen 60 yards for a one-play scoring drive. Northern Illinois came back again to take a 42-38 lead on a 19-yard Harnish to Palmer completion.
Northern Illinois defense stopped Toledo short of the end zone on their next drive and that proved to be the difference in the game. Toledo advanced to the NIU 16 but had to settle for a 33-yard Casano field goal and a 42-41 deficit.
NIU answered with a 15-yard TD pass from Harnish to Willie Clark, Page scored again and Thomas earned his first rushing touchdown of the game. Jasmin Hopkins answered with an eight-yard touchdown with eight minutes remaining, setting the stage of the final score.
Northern Illinois finished with 532 yards on 62 plays while Toledo totaled 589 yards of total offense on 88 plays. The two teams set a MAC record for most touchdowns in a game.