Created:Monday, October 24, 2011 5:30 a.m.CDT

NIU still a dog in MAC fight

Northern Illinois quarterback Chandler Harnish is lifted by offensive lineman Joe Pawlak (72) in celebration after Harnish scored in the first half to give the Huskies a 16-10 lead Saturday at UB Stadium in Amherst, N.Y. NIU won, 31-30. (John Hickey – Buffalo News)

AMHERST, N.Y. – From blowout wins to crushing losses, moments the season looked in danger and times it was reinvigorated, Northern Illinois took a winding, inconsistent path to November.

NIU’s game Saturday at Buffalo was the same. A 21-point, third-quarter lead turned into a 31-30 win that should have gone into overtime if not for Bulls kicker Peter Fardon’s missed extra-point attempt with 14 seconds left.

Coach Dave Doeren was disappointed his team didn’t finish well. The Huskies were held without a first down in the fourth quarter. They didn’t stop Buffalo on four fourth-down plays.

But Doeren also had incentive to quickly move past his frustrations.

“I’m glad that November matters right now because that’s where we’re at,” he said. “That’s where contenders have the chance to be something.”

Counting all the inconsistencies – both Saturday and the seven weeks before – NIU still controls its own destiny in the Mid-American Conference West Division race. That seemed anything but certain three weeks ago, after the Huskies allowed 48 points in their MAC-opening loss at Central Michigan.

“The coaches did a fantastic job of helping us bounce back,” senior quarterback Chandler Harnish said. “They weren’t negative by any means. They were positive, just kept constantly driving into our heads that we really were good players. All we had to do was buy into the system, do our job.

“You know, it’s really a testament to those guys. Coach Doeren did a great job of really having that trickle-down effect of having a positive attitude and just going back to work. We were able to do that, and we’re feeling pretty good right now, but we still have to go back to work every day and just continue to get better.”

This week may be even more important.

NIU has a few extra days to prepare for its Nov. 1 matchup at Toledo, which leads the West with a 4-0 conference record. Doeren said his team won’t practice Sunday or today, using that time to study film and “heal up.” The Huskies will introduce first- and second-down schemes Tuesday and Wednesday before an off day Thursday.

Then the week resets Friday in anticipation for the season’s first Tuesday game.

“Friday will be like a Tuesday,” Doeren said, “and we’ll be in our normal routine.”

It’s the confusing life MAC teams experience late in a season, when everyone vies for the primetime, midweek ESPN spotlight. What is clear, however, is NIU’s stakes the next time it takes the field. The winner may have an unobstructed path to Detroit, site of the MAC championship game in December.

For those outside the program, everything NIU has done this season was measured in context next to Toledo. Fans digested Nov. 1 on message boards for months. Doeren said he never once thought about November until after Saturday’s wild win concluded. Now there’s no avoiding it.

“We’re playing against the team with the best record on our side of the schedule,” Doeren said. “This is the game [fans] wanted, and they got. We’ve got to coach and play our best at Toledo to have a chance.”

Will NIU football win the MAC this season?