TOLEDO, Ohio – Northern Illinois already had won the game so many times.
There was Chandler Harnish’s 15-yard shovel pass to Willie Clark, giving NIU an eight-point, fourth-quarter lead. A few minutes later, NIU went 73 yards in six plays to erase another Toledo deficit.
By the time Harnish jogged onto the field one last time, trailing by four points with just more than four minutes remaining, few could blame NIU’s offense if it felt exhausted. Instead, Harnish said it felt exhilarated.
“The way the game was going, we knew probably the last team to have the ball was going to win the game,” Harnish said. “That’s not a disrespect to either team’s defenses. Both offenses were feeling it. We were moving the ball well.”
“We just felt like we were going to go down and do our thing.”
Harnish was right.
The Huskies senior found junior receiver Perez Ashford for a 4-yard touchdown pass with 19 seconds left, lifting NIU for a wild, 63-60 win at Toledo. It was Harnish’s career-record sixth touchdown pass, topping off his best passing performance of the season with 265 yards and no interceptions.
Numb. That’s how coach Dave Doeren and his players described it afterward. And, really, nothing else seemed fitting.
“It’s surreal. I’m just trying to take in the moment right now,” Harnish said, after receiving a postgame hug from senior middle linebacker Pat Schiller and shaking hands with NIU fans who stayed after the game ended. “I don’t know what I’m feeling right now, if I’m happy, if I’m surprised, if I’m ecstatic. I just – I won’t be sleeping tonight – that’s all I know.”
This one exorcised a lot of bad memories.
NIU hadn’t won in the Glass Bowl since 2005. The Huskies entered 2-18 all-time. Their recent history included a 70-21 loss in 2007, and a one-point loss in 2009 when a potential game-winning NIU field goal was blocked with 37 seconds left.
For a while, it looked like the Huskies were headed for the same type of heartbreak.
The lead changed four times in the final 10:30. Each time NIU scored, Toledo answered. To win was an exercise of patience.
“I just knew that we were going to get it,” said senior receiver Nathan Palmer, who finished with team-highs of four catches, 120 yards and three touchdowns. “I looked at Chandler, Chandler looked at me, and he said, ‘Let’s go win it.’ And that’s what we did.”
Aside from the astounding highlights, think about what this game meant for both teams. With the win, NIU took control of the West Division race, beating the team that had the best record on its side on the road.
With three games to go, the hardest part of NIU’s journey back to Detroit for the MAC title game isn’t just complete. It’s successful.
“I told the players this week, ‘If we really want to be the champs, we’ve got to take our championship that we won last year and go on the road and win it,’ ” Doeren said. “And we did that last week, and we did that today, and now we’ve got to do that again next week [against Bowling Green]. If you can win three games in any league, you deserve to be called champions.
“I think both sides left it all on the field tonight. I hope people were watching, because it was a great college football game.”
• Ryan Wood is a sports reporter for the Daily Chronicle. Write to him at email@example.com.