KALAMAZOO, Mich. – Nathan Palmer returned to the Northern Illinois huddle with his head down after failing to come down with what could’ve been a game-winning touchdown reception late in the fourth quarter against Western Michigan.
But when the dejected junior receiver looked up, Huskies quarterback Chandler Harnish had a smile on his face.
“He was like, ‘Hey, it don’t matter. We’re about to score anyway,’ ” Palmer said. “His poise today really kind of put me back in the zone.”
After leading the Huskies (7-2, 5-0 Mid-American Conference) to their sixth-straight win, Harnish is the man in the zone. The junior quarterback added another line to his lengthy 2010 resume after leading the Huskies’ offense on a 7-play, 79-yard game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter to lead the Huskies to a 28-21 win over the Broncos (3-5, 2-2 MAC).
Harnish, now 7-1 as a starter this season, had led the Huskies to five straight double-digit victories, but on Saturday he showed he can not only protect leads but he can take leads.
Players said there was nothing but confidence and energy in the Huskies’ offensive huddle, a big change from the previous two seasons. And it all starts with the calm, cool and collected Harnish.
Harnish exuded confidence since stepping into the starter’s role in Week 2 and it has seeped its way through the NIU locker room.
“He’s been through everything,” said NIU running back Chad Spann, who had 146 rushing yards Saturday. “He’s been in the blowout games, he’s been in the close games, now he has a come-from-behind game. It builds his confidence which puts more confidence in us with him that he can lead us to these victories.”
Harnish may have been the second most talented quarterback on the field Saturday as WMU sophomore Alex Carder – “He’s a really good quarterback,” Harnish said – was 31-for-53 for 360 yards and three touchdowns.
But if trades were allowed between MAC teams, Harnish would be on my list of untouchables.
“He continues to grow each week,” NIU coach Jerry Kill said. “Everybody judges quarterbacks on wins. They don’t judge them on stats. They judge them on wins and moving the chains.”
But the 22-year-old signal caller continues to improve his physical skills as well.
He’s shown no ill effects from the mysterious knee injury he suffered last year and is running harder – and he says “smarter” – than ever. Several times he used his mobility to escape the Broncos’ pass rush and extend plays. And his throws had a little extra juice on them late in the fourth quarter, especially when he rifled a completion to Palmer for a big two-point conversion following Willie Clark’s 21-yard touchdown catch with 3:42 remaining.
“We had a few wind issues in practice, and he was still out there zinging them,” said Palmer, who had a career-high five catches for 83 yards and a touchdown. “His arm’s gotten a lot stronger.
“He’s making the right reads, and his confidence kind of helps our confidence. When he’s out there he knows everything that’s going on. All we have to do is make plays for him.”
After two years as a starter and a Week 1 benching, Harnish has the battle scars and been-there-done-that mental fortitude that make quarterbacks successful when it matters most: crunch time.
In a conference in which the best quarterbacks often play in the championship game, the Huskies are sitting pretty with Harnish at the helm.
• Jeremy Werner is a reporter for the Daily Chronicle. Write to him at email@example.com