CHAMPAIGN – Northern Illinois had bottled the emotion for a week. But the Huskies – charged to show their worth to in-state Big Ten rival Illinois – finally let it all spill onto the Memorial Stadium turf about ten minutes prior to Saturday's kickoff.
Illinois players, protecting their field, took exception to the Huskies' customary interlocked, side-to-side swaying before storming the field.
The Huskies' stood their ground and the teams jawed at each other near the north end zone with only seven NIU cheerleaders, each holding a flag with a letter to spell out "HUSKIES," standing in the way of a potential battle royal.
The confrontation provided a perfect TV moment, illustrating the intensity of the interstate game.
“I think the amount of emotion before the game was a great thing," NIU quarterback Chandler Harnish said. "I think (it was) just building the hype a little bit. I think we may have started a little rivalry, which is what we need. It’s good to go into a game with a lot of energy and emotion. We were excited. They were excited. It just made for a better atmosphere.”
Trick is a treat: NIU practiced the halfback pass last week, but, junior tailback Jasmin Hopkins often led his wide receivers too far and out of bounds.
The trick play worked when it mattered on Saturday, as Hopkins' lob found a wide-open Landon Cox in the end zone for a 19-yard touchdown and cut Illinois' lead to 21-19 with six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
"It was like time stood still when that ball went up," NIU offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said.
Limegrover said the NIU coaching staff decided after last week's win over North Dakota that it had too many talented running backs to just use one at a time. So the Huskies employed senior Ricky Crider as a wide receiver on a few plays and used Hopkins on several motion sweeps, setting up the halfback pass.
“It was part of the playbook, part of the plan," Hopkins said. "We executed it during practice, and the defense basically gave us what we wanted.”
Gambling man: When the Huskies scored their first touchdown to cut Illinois' lead to 7-6, NIU coach Jerry Kill wanted to make a statement. Instead of settling for the tie with an extra-point attempt, the Huskies tried for a two-point conversion, employing a swinging gate formation with only the center and Harnish within the hashmarks.
But Harnish's backwards pass attempt to kicker Mathew Sims, who later missed an extra point, sailed incomplete. Kill said the play would've worked had Harnish executed.
When Illinois held a 21-19 midway through the fourth quarter, Kill's gamble looked like it may yet prove costly.
“Oh shoot, I roll the dice," Kill said. "I’ve been playing this game a long time. We didn’t come up here to lay up. I’ve played golf. I’m not going to try to chip the thing up there. I’m going to try to knock the (darn) thing in the hole.
“I believe you have to be aggressive to win games.”