On a day when the normally potent Northern Illinois offense struggled to find its rhythm, the oft-maligned Huskie defense stepped up Friday morning to lead NIU to an 18-12 victory over Eastern Michigan at Huskie Stadium.
With the victory, Northern Illinois (9-3, 7-1) earned its seventh-straight win and its second consecutive trip to the Marathon Mid-American Conference Championship as the MAC West Champions.
“Finally, we can quit talking about Detroit and go back [there],” said NIU head coach Dave Doeren, the winningest first-year head coach in Northern Illinois history.
“It’s hard to win seven straight games in college football. When you do it in conference, on the road, with injuries, it says a lot about our character, our leadership and our coaching staff.”
In keeping with one of the season’s themes, Northern Illinois won the game on Friday, “The Hard Way,” which included a defensive stand in the game’s final two minutes as Eastern Michigan (6-6, 4-4) attempted to drive for the game-winning touchdown.
EMU began its final drive on their own 32 with 3:33 left to play, but reached Huskie territory one play later on a 26-yard run Eagles’ quarterback Alex Gillett to the NIU 42. Two plays later, EMU had first and 10 at the NIU 31 with a little over two minutes remaining.
Although Gillett had eluded NIU defenders all day to the tune of 67 rushing yards on 17 carries, this time, the Northern Illinois rush got to the Eagles’ QB as defensive end Alan Baxter sacked Gillett for 15 yards.
On the next play, NIU defensive end Sean Progar tripped up Gillett for a 10-yard loss and the game came down to a fourth-and-35 play with just over 1:40 on the clock. Gillett once again dropped back, once again escaped the rush and threw deep in the middle of the field toward Garrett Hoskins. NIU defensive backs Sean Evans and Demetrius Stone converged on Hoskins and knocked it out of his hands to preserve the Northern Illinois lead.
Three snaps later, the Huskies celebrated a return trip to Detroit.
“There’s nothing better than stopping someone at the end of the game to win,” Doeren said. “As a defensive player, that’s a huge deal. I’m proud of those guys for sticking together and believing. You can’t win championships without defense and we took a step toward that today. We won the West because we played great defense. Our offense has carried us throughout the season; today was the defense’s turn.”
The difference on the scoreboard was a 68-yard touchdown run by Huskie quarterback Chandler Harnish that gave NIU an 18-6 lead at the end of the third quarter.
Harnish ran the quarterback power play to the right looking for one yard and instead, after breaking one tackle, went all the way for his 11th rushing score of the season. He ran for 148 yards on 17 carries on the day to record his fourth straight 100-yard rushing game and his sixth 100-yard day of the season.
The touchdown run was NIU’s first since the first quarter, when Harnish hit a wide open Willie Clark in the middle of the field for a 54-yard touchdown and an early 7-0 Huskie lead.
The Huskie defense got a big stop early in the game as well. After EMU had first and goal on the NIU two in the first quarter, three runs netted minus one yards and the Eagles were forced to settle for a 20-yard field goal by Kody Fulkerson.
The defense added two points to the Huskies’ total with 8:44 to play in the second quarter when Progar tackled running back Dominique Scherrer in the end zone for a 9-3 NIU lead.
NIU kept the Eagles out of the endzone again after a 14-play, 57-yard drive by Eastern Michigan ended at the Huskie six-yard line with a 23-yard field goal by Fulkerson to cut the lead to 12-6 with 1:43 left in the third quarter.
On a windy day in DeKalb, Harnish completed nine-of-19 passes for 98 yards while Gillett connected on 11-of-25 passes for 147 yards. Northern Illinois was held to two-of-13 on third-down conversions. Jordan Delegal led the NIU defense with 10 tackles, one for loss, while Rashaan Melvin had nine stops. Progar, Ron Newcomb and Baxter each recorded a sack.
Northern Illinois extended its winning streak at Huskie Stadium to a school-record 15 games.
GOING TO DETROIT?
Tickets are $20 to the general public while NIU student tickets are free. Fans can purchase tickets online or by calling the NIU Ticket Office at (815) 752-6800. The NIU Ticket Office will be open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 26.
Northern Illinois Athletics is offering a Huskie Fan Bus Package for fans interested in traveling to Detroit to cheer on the Huskies.
The Huskie Fan Bus departs DeKalb from the Convocation Center (Lot C3) at 7:30 a.m. and from outside Macy’s at Oakbrook Center at 8:15 a.m. Friday, Dec. 2. The bus will arrive in Detroit at 4:15 p.m. E.T. and the HASF/NIU Alumni Association Tailgate will be from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. E.T. with the program beginning at 5:45 p.m.
The deadline to reserve a spot on the Huskie Fan Bus is noon Wednesday, Nov. 30. Complete the order form and return it to HASF, Convo 213, 1525 W. Lincoln Hwy, DeKalb, IL 60115.
Fans planning on making their own travel arrangements to Detroit are also welcome to the HASF/NIU Alumni Association Tailgate. Admission is $30 for all you can and drink.
For more information, contact the Huskie Athletic Support Fund at (815) 753-1923 or by logging onto www.niuhuskies.com and the 2011 Postseason Central Page.
For more information on NIU football and Huskie athletics, visit www.niuhuskies.com.