CHAMPAIGN – With Northern Illinois head coach Jerry Kill on the sidelines after a five-day hospital stay this week, the Huskies players couldn’t get away with laying down against Illinois.
Whether facing a team-versus-team standoff near the north end zone during pregame or an early seven-point deficit, NIU never backed down against big brother Illinois in front of a 50,569 at Memorial Stadium. But like several of its Big Ten upset bids in recent memory, the Huskies couldn’t come up with the knockout blow, falling to the Illini 28-22.
The Huskies (1-2) are now 2-33-1 all-time against the Big Ten with Minnesota next on the schedule.
“I’m not happy right now,” NIU defensive end Jake Coffman said during the postgame press conference. “I’m definitely frustrated with the loss. But we’re getting better every week. That has to be our mindset.”
“I think our kids expected to win,” said Kill, who was on the sidelines but handed off playcalling duties to coordinators Matt Limegrover and Tracy Claeys. “We had a shot, now. We had a great shot.”
NIU played inspired with Kill cheering them on the sidelines and throwing water cups and headsets after being released from Northwestern Memorial on Thursday following a battle with dehydration following last week’s game against North Dakota.
The Huskies gave their best 60-minute effort of the season, accumulating 390 yards of offense against the in-state foe. “It was great for us,” Coffman said of Kill being on the sideline. “He’s our captain.”
But NIU’s defense struggled to stop the Illini’s dynamic rushing duo of junior running back Mikel Leshoure (181 yards rushing) and redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase (120 yards rushing). The Huskies’ upset hopes finally were dashed when Illinois recovered an onside kick with 19 seconds remaining.
Illinois held NIU running back Chad Spann to 15 yards on 13 carries, but Chandler Harnish again stepped up to pace the Huskies’ offense, passing for 208 yards and rushing for 117, after starting the season No. 2 on the depth chart.
But Harnish was sacked seven times and the junior quarterback made the Huskies’ biggest mistake of the game when he fumbled at the Illini 30 early in the fourth quarter with the Huskies trailing 18-12.
“I was definitely proud of how our guys played and how we handled adversity late in the game,” Harnish said.