DETROIT – Northern Illinois President John Peters and athletic director Jeff Compher stared blankly, the same dazed trauma worn on the faces of dozens of Huskies players and thousands of NIU fans who had the same thought.
In the Huskies second trip to the MAC Championship Game, the ending of Friday’s 26-21 loss to Miami was all too familiar of a 31-30 loss to Akron in 2005.
This time Miami’s Armand Robinson played the role of Domenik Hixon – who caught an improbable Hail Mary touchdown pass on the same turf five years prior to beat the Huskies – as he strolled into the end zone untouched for a 33-yard touchdown catch with 33 seconds remaining.
Just two plays earlier, RedHawks redshirt freshman quarterback Austin Boucher’s pass on 4th-and-20 was tipped by NIU linebacker Tyrone Clark for what seemed to be the game-winning Huskies stand. But for some reason the ball fell into the well-positioned hands of Miami receiver Chris Givens for a 31-yard first-down reception.
Is it some kind of wicked Ford Field fate?
NIU coach Jerry Kill and his players, none of whom were part of the 2005 team, wouldn’t accept supernatural reasoning for ruining a previously perfect MAC season for the No.24 Huskies (10-3, 8-1 MAC).
“This is the game of football,” Kill said. “This isn’t about fate and all this stuff. There’s nothing to all those things. You win or lose a football game. Sometimes it doesn’t go your way.”
The RedHawks (9-4, 8-1 MAC), who proved worthy NIU opponents despite entering as 17.5-point underdogs by Las Vegas sportsbooks, were happy to take the friendly bounces before a crowd of 12,031 for their first MAC Championship since 2003.
“Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good,” said Boucher, who threw for 333 yards in his third start in place of the injured Zac Dysert.
“The bounces kind of went their way,” said NIU senior defensive end Jake Coffman, who had eight tackles and two sacks. “We had guys in position, but Miami did a great job today. They really played well.”
The Huskies drove to the Miami 32-yard line with 10 seconds remaining. But Miami defensive end Austin Brown dragged down NIU quarterback Chandler Harnish, sacking the Huskies’ hopes of winning the program’s first MAC title since 1983.
Miami gained more yards (432) on NIU than any MAC team this season and held MAC Offensive Player of the Year Chad Spann to 54 yards on 17 carries.
“They made a few more plays than us and that’s what got us in the end,” Kill said.
“There’s probably about six or seven plays that made the difference in the game. That’s how football is.”
Harnish passed for 281 yards and three touchdowns. Martel Moore (110 receiving yards) caught two of them in the first quarter to give NIU a 14-13 lead. But the game turned into a more Midwestern-style slugfest. Harnish’s 39-yard touchdown pass to Willie Clark gave the Huskies the lead six seconds into the fourth quarter, a lead they didn’t relinquish until destiny swayed to the RedHawks during the final minute.
NIU linebacker Alex Kube, a redshirt senior, could only make it to the 30-yard line on his long walk back to the locker room before the reality that his five-year dream had shattered. He broke down and collapsed to Ford Field turf on one knee. Consoling from teammates Pat Schiller and DeMarcus Grady couldn’t stop Kube’s tears.
“I’m not going to sit here and lie to you, it hurts,” Kube said in the postgame press conference, again fighting tears. “It’s painful.
“It hurts. I’m sorry for the community. I’m sorry for the program and everything like that. But I’m telling you, we’re going to bounce back.”
MIAMI (OHIO) 26, No. 24 N. ILLINOIS 21
N. Illinois 14 0 0 7 — 21
Miami 13 0 7 6 — 26
M-Merriweather 1 run (kick blocked), 8:02.
NIU-Moore 69 pass from Harnish (Cklamovski kick), 6:33.
M-Woods 7 run (Cook kick), 3:46.
NIU-Moore 27 pass from Harnish (Cklamovski kick), 1:17.
M-Merriweather 1 run (Cook kick), 9:52.
NIU-W.Clark 39 pass from Harnish (Cklamovski kick), 14:54.
M0-Robinson 33 pass from A.Boucher (kick failed), :33.
First downs 18 19
Rushes-yards 32-92 26-99
Passing 281 333
Comp-Att-Int 15-29-0 29-46-0
Return Yards 0 8
Punts-Avg. 6-45.2 6-38.0
Fumbles-Lost 2-1 0-0
Penalties-Yards 3-15 1-5
Time of Possession 26:30 33:30
RUSHING-N. Illinois, Spann 17-54, Lynch 5-26, Crider 1-9, Harnish 8-3, A.Daniels 1-0. Miami (Ohio), Merriweather 11-85, Woods 5-26, Scherpenberg 1-3, A.Boucher 9-(minus 15).
PASSING-N. Illinois, Harnish 15-28-0-281, Lynch 0-1-0-0. Miami (Ohio), A.Boucher 29-46-0-333.
RECEIVING-N. Illinois, Moore 4-110, W.Clark 4-70, Palmer 3-56, Schepler 2-22, Ashford 1-13, L.Cox 1-10. Miami (Ohio), Robinson 14-176, Harwell 5-66, Woods 3-33, Givens 2-38, Cruse 2-9, Paine 2-9, Ju.Semmes 1-2.