AMHERST, N.Y. – The mock cheers started in the second half, a scattered patter of claps mixed with sarcasm.
They happened after Northern Illinois punts, mostly leading to Buffalo fair catches. Fans cheered because the Bulls returner caught the football. They mocked because at that point – after three muffed punts – simply catching the football was more exemplary, less elementary.
"You take what you can get," NIU coach Dave Doeren said.
Doeren saw an opponent imploding throughout his team's 31-30 win Saturday in front of 13,370 fans at UB Stadium. Seven Buffalo penalties. Five turnovers. And let's not forget kicker Peter Fardon's botched extra point with 14 seconds left.
The Huskies may as well have been a charity.
All of which was gladly accepted because NIU did little to help itself. The Huskies didn't have a turnover, giving them an unbelievable plus-five margin. They only won by a point.
How does that happen?
By not scoring the final 23 minutes after opening the second half with two relatively easy touchdown drives. By giving up three touchdowns in the final quarter, the last on a 14-play, 88-yard drive that should have sent the game into overtime. And, worst of all, by playing timid, lethargic football for stretches against a 2-6 team that couldn't catch a punt or convert the easiest play in the game.
Let's be honest. After getting out to a 31-10 lead with eight minutes left in the third quarter, NIU coasted.
"I think the big thing for this year is just being consistent," senior middle linebacker Pat Schiller said. "We've got to learn how to finish better. We thought we learned how to do that the past two games, but obviously we still have some work to do."
Schiller said Saturday wasn't a digression from the previous two games, which the Huskies won by a combined score of 91-32 at home against Western Michigan and Kent State. He effusively praised Buffalo quarterback Chazz Anderson and running back Branden Oliver, calling them some of the best players NIU's defense saw this season. Anderson and Oliver deserved the respect.
But then you go back to having a smaller scoring margin than turnover margin against a team that has won two games in eight. You see the Bulls' 572 yards (the most NIU's defense allowed since Wisconsin's 621) and Anderson's 404 passing yards (the most allowed this season). And you begin to wonder.
"You know," Schiller said, "like I said, we're going to take the win. It doesn't feel like a step backward, by any means. We're excited that we got the win. But we've still got a lot of work to do if we're going to beat a good team with Toledo."
Everything about Saturday failed to leave the proper impression. It was underwhelming, unceremonious, not the way you'd expect this team to beat that team.
But nothing puts things into perspective this season like the MAC scoreboard.
Temple lost at Bowling Green on Saturday a week after looking so dominant against Buffalo. Western Michigan continued to crater, losing at Eastern Michigan. There are 13 MAC teams. Only one – Toledo – is undefeated in conference play.
This league has more parity this season than it's had in years, maybe ever. Any road win is positive, even how NIU got it.
"It came down to the last second on the clock, and we won today," Doeren said. "No one is taking that victory ever off the record board for us. So I'm proud of these guys for scoring one more than them. It feels great. I wish it was a lot better, but it was a victory and no one will take it off of our books."
Just know, next week has to be different. Toledo fans haven't had reason to mock cheer.
• Ryan Wood is a sports reporter for the Daily Chronicle. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org