The last time NIU and Ohio took opposite sides of a football field, it was in Detroit for the 2011 Mid-American Conference Championship.
Huskie fans will remember that Ohio enjoyed a heartbreaking 20-0 halftime lead, which at the time seemed insurmountable.
Yet the Bobcats would never score again that night.
Quarterback Chandler Harnish, held to 13 rushing and 35 passing yards in the opening stanza, led the Huskies to the end zone three times after the break.
On the second of those touchdowns, however, kicker Mathew Sims missed his point-after attempt. Later, with the score even at 20 and time on the clock expiring, it was Sims who confidently sent the ball sailing 33 yards through the uprights to cap NIU’s thrilling climb to conference dominance.
Three years later – and with no meetings since – NIU treks Tuesday to the unfriendly territory of Athens for a rematch as the 8-2 Huskies pursue their fifth consecutive ticket to Detroit.
“Ohio is a good football team. They’ve battled through some injuries at different spots, but from what I can tell now, they’re healthy,” Huskie coach Rod Carey says of the 5-5 Bobcats.
“It starts with Coach Solich. He does a great job and has done a great job for a long time at Ohio. They’re big, fast and physical, just everything that you’d expect out of a Coach Solich team. They make plays,” Carey adds. “They’ve lost (only) one game at home. They’re sound in everything that they do. There’s just not a weakness in what they do. It’s going to be a good challenge.”
Kickoff for the midweek #MACtion is scheduled for 7 p.m. Central Time. Fans can watch the game on ESPNU/ESPN3 or listen on AM 560 WIND from Chicago or WCPT 92.5 FM from DeKalb.
Carey’s players, who control their own destiny in the MAC after downing tough Toldeo this week, aren’t thinking about Ford Field just yet.
“You just got to take it one game at a time,” says center Andrew Ness, “and if you do that throughout the whole season, you’ll get to where you want to be.”
Success also takes “a lot of heart, a lot of passion” and coming “strapped and ready,” linebacker Rasheen Lemon adds.
“It’s really going to be a good game, like every game in the MAC. We got to bring it every game,” Lemon says. “Their offense, they work hard, they’re not going to quit, they’re going to fight till the end, so it’s going to be a dog fight, like every other game in the MAC.”
Ohio’s only home loss came without its starting quarterback, Derrius Vick, who hurt his knee earlier in the season. Carey expects Vick, whose injury kept him out of two road losses and contributes to a “deceptive” record, will play Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Ohio also has motivation beyond the lingering taste of Dec. 2, 2011.
“They’re 5-5; you need six to take you to a bowl. I’m sure they have plenty to play for, but so do we,” Carey says. “We’re in a situation right now where this game is the most important game that we have and have had; you can’t be afraid to say that and it’s going to be tough because you have to go on the road. There’s plenty to play for on our end, too.”
As the regular season nears its conclusion – “It’s November, and those teams that usually stay the course and keep getting better usually give themselves a good chance to get what they want in the end,” the coach says – NIU’s players are stepping up.
Cameron Stingily, called “his own blocker” by an ESPN2 broadcaster this week, is ramming his way through the opposition late in the season. He’s rushed for 10 touchdowns so far this fall; half of those came in the last two games.
“I think it was a blessing in disguise, him missing all those bumps and bruises in fall camp and the first week,” Carey says. “It made him pretty fresh right now, this time of year so that’s pretty favorable for us.”
And, in a rematch of a game that hinged on a field goal, true freshman Christian Hagan is demonstrating a “good, strong leg.”
“The dude just has a different disposition. He’s his own guy and I really like it. The team has a ton of confidence in him, too, so he’s all in now,” Carey says. “Just because we went for it on fourth and five doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a strong leg, but that was a stiff breeze. I think you can stretch him, given wind, anywhere from 42 to 52.”