DeKALB – The opening-drive turnover was a little discouraging, and allowing Western Illinois to slice up its defense minutes later wasn’t pleasing either.
But after shaking out a few early jitters, the Northern Illinois football team got it together, and got it together in a pretty big way.
Huskies tailback Me’co Brown coughed the ball up on the third play of the game, but the defense got it right back. The offense then took full advantage, scoring on its next four possessions as the Huskies beat up on Western Illinois at Huskie Field, 41-7, after dropping their last three meetings with the Leathernecks.
“Once you make a mistake you’ve got to forget about it and move on to the next play,” Brown said. “What I liked about it was [quarterback] Chandler [Harnish], him being the leader of the team, he came up to me and said, ‘Just keep your head up and just forget about it. Next time you go out there do what you do best and make plays.’”
The Huskies grabbed a 7-0 lead on their second possession about as quickly as they turned it over on their first. They got the ball at their own 48 after a catch and fumble by Western wide receiver Lito Senatus.
On the first play of the ensuing possession, Harnish connected with Willie Clark for 45 yards. A play later Chad Spann rushed left for a 7-yard score.
Spann scored NIU’s first three touchdowns, his first two on the ground from inside the 10-yardline, and one on a 20-yard dump off from Harnish to extend the lead to 21-7 with 12:35 left in the half.
“As a group, the running backs just want to put forth a great effort and do whatever’s called upon us,” said Spann, who has five touchdowns in two games. “Me’co got some great runs out there. I came in and finished a couple drives off.”
NIU dominated the ground game. Brown recovered from his early fumble to notch his third career 100-yard game with 119 yards on 14 carries. Spann had eight carries for 38 yards. In total, the Huskies outgained Western 244-82 in rushing yards.
But coach Jerry Kill pointed to Harnish’s solid quarterback play as the backbone of the offensive success. Harnish went 10-for-14 for 143 yards and two touchdowns.
“There was no question we had good quarterback play against Wisconsin, and Chandler had good quarterback play today,” Kill said. “And when you’ve got good quarterback play, you’ve got a chance to win games.”
The Leathernecks first sustained drive caused some problems for the NIU defense. They went 75 yards on 10 plays spanning 4 minutes, 45 seconds to tie the game after Spann’s first touchdown.
The first three plays on the drive went for first downs, and four that followed went for 8 yards or more. But that was the last time Western entered the red zone. The closest it came was the final drive of the first half when they reached the NIU 22 before turning it over on downs.
“I think as the game went on, defensively we got better,” Kill said. “… We were sacking the quarterback in the second half. In the first half we were running by him.”
The encouraging win comes a week after a close loss in Madison to Wisconsin. NIU will jump right back into the Big Ten fire next week at Purdue with a chance to finish the job this time.
“It’s a big challenge,” Kill said. “But I think our kids and we have to understand we have a good football team and we’ll put a good plan together. And if we go down and execute the plan, then we’ve got a chance. I think that happened today.”