TOLEDO, Ohio – Chandler Harnish shoved the football toward his running back’s gut, holding it there a few moments. His eyes stayed downfield. The Northern Illinois senior quarterback wasn’t missing this chance.
“You could see the play develop,” Harnish said. “I was like, ‘Oh boy, here goes Nate.’ ”
Nathan Palmer recognized it, too. Toledo starting safety Charles Rancifer was suspended for Tuesday night’s nationally televised game at the Glass Bowl – which ended in a thrilling, 63-60 win for the Huskies – because of unspecified disciplinary reasons. NIU wanted to take advantage.
Running down field, the senior receiver saw Toledo backup Ross Madison bite on Harnish’s fake handoff and knew that was all he needed.
“Chandler saw the safety come down, and he just hit me over the top,” Palmer said. “That’s all it really was.”
“I probably underthrew him a little bit,” Harnish added. “But I did not want to miss that throw. I think we had two or three people open on that play. You’ve got to take advantage of opportunities, and that’s what we did.”
The touchdown didn’t cement the win like Harnish’s 4-yard pass to Perez Ashford with 19 seconds left.
It wasn’t even a fourth-quarter, momentum-grabber like the 15-yard shovel pass to Willie Clark, or Jasmin Hopkins’ 8-yard touchdown run with eight minutes left.
In larger context, it meant as much as any of those scores.
Harnish put extra air under his 71-yard, second-quarter touchdown pass to Palmer, but few could blame him for being cautious.
Harnish’s longest completion this season had been 58 yards, which happened twice. Both were screen passes – one ending with a Jamal Womble touchdown against Army, the other Palmer’s sideline-to-sideline catch and run against Western Michigan.
For the season’s first eight games, the Huskies’ downfield passing attack was nonexistent. It returned against Toledo, giving NIU the game’s biggest lead, 28-14, early in the second quarter. It’s no wonder Tuesday was the season’s highest scoring output.
“It’s a big dimension,” Harnish said. “I think that’s one thing we hadn’t done in the recent weeks, is throw the ball downfield. We were able to make a lot of big plays at big junctures of the game, and you can’t give enough credit to the wide receivers.
“I mean, what can you say about Nathan Palmer? Had a fantastic game.”
Palmer finished with three touchdowns and 120 yards on his four catches. Harnish was 17 of 26 for 265 yards, a career-high six touchdowns and no interceptions. But that one completion stands out above the rest.
The Huskies offense has been electrifying this season, averaging 41.2 points a game after nine. They’ve done that with only one deep, game-breaking completion. If the downfield attack continues, imagine what more NIU’s offense can do.
“We knew they were very, very sound defensively,” NIU coach Dave Doeren said, still complimentary despite the Rockets’ horrid defensive night. “We knew that they would use rules. We had a couple routes we thought that they could bust open.
“Our run game has been very, very good. So there were a few wrinkles in there when we got them loaded up on Chandler, and he was able to get it over their head. The O-line protected it. They had very good play fakes. It was a very good game plan. It was well executed.”