TOLEDO, Ohio – When you're on a tight deadline, and the guillotine is approaching with each minute, games are hard to fully process. That's especially true for a game like Northern Illinois' 63-60 win at Toledo.
You know what you saw was great. You can grab onto the key plot lines. But there are so many highlights – so much stuff happening – it's impossible to cover everything.
Driving from the Glass Bowl to hotel, I had a chance to let what just happened Tuesday night simmer in my thoughts. Here are four important things to note:
1. It's not hyperbole: Keep in mind, I'm young(ish), just 24 years old. Really, I'm going off five years here, just back to 2006. But, by far, that was the best football game I have ever covered.
Previously, that title went to the 2008 tilt between between Ball State and Central Michigan. That was a game similar to this, a staring contest between two great teams, each going at each other for 60 straight minutes without taking a break. As you watched, you knew the winner was going to win the MAC West. Just like tonight.
Where NIU v. Toledo circa 2011 differed was this: I have never seen a game where, from the first play to the last, every snap felt like a potential highlight.
Where to begin? Tommylee Lewis' two kickoff returns for touchdowns (see below). Eric Page's five touchdown receptions, tying former Marshall receiver Randy Moss? Nathan Palmer's three touchdown catches and 120 yards, after having one touchdown and 329 yards through the season's first eight games?
How about this: Starting quarterbacks Chandler Harnish and Austin Daltin combined to finish 37 of 59 (62.7 percent) for 587 yards and an absolutely absurd 11 touchdowns to zero interceptions. When you get quarterback play like that, you're in for a night like this.
(In case you were wondering, quarterbacks Nate Davis and Dan LeFevour combined to finish 42 for 66 (63.6 percent) for 520 yards, six touchdowns and one interception in that 2008 game. Ironically, that game was also played on ESPN2.)
2. Doeren's decision on Lewis justified: All season, I couldn't figure out Dave Doeren's decision to discard freshman Tommylee Lewis' redshirt. Sure, the kid was talented. Anyone could see that. But entering Tuesday, NIU was 5-3 with or without Lewis. His presence didn't change anything.
The Huskies wouldn't be 6-3 without the freshman. No way they win without his two kickoff returns for touchdowns, which set the table in the first quarter for a wild night.
A couple weeks ago, I mentioned the only way Doeren's decision to put Lewis on the field would be correct was if the freshman made a game-changing play. As soon as his first kickoff return – which was really about 103 yards, but officially 100 because college is not like the NFL where you can have a play as long as 110 – I thought it justified the decision. I wasn't the only one.
"I've been waiting for it," Doeren said, smiling. "That's why I pulled his redshirt, to be honest with you.
"During the week, I knew we had a chance. We worked on kickoff return every day of the nine days we had to get ready because I knew it could be a difference maker in the game. I just didn't feel like – you know, they'd only kicked three touchbacks – and I knew we were going to get a lot of opportunities."
3. What was Beckman thinking?: I think Tim Beckman is a very good coach. I'm impressed with how he rebuilt the Rockets. The last time I watched Toledo play in the Glass Bowl (in 2008), it didn't score a point. Obviously, this program is very different now.
Beyond that, I hate to point out Beckman's coaching mistakes because this night was about remarkable offensive performances by both teams. But there's no way around it. Beckman had an awful Tuesday night. Perhaps a worse performance than anyone.
Unlike the highlights, it's easy to find where to begin with Beckman's lowlights.
NIU had the football inside Toledo's 15-yard line (maybe even it's 10) with under two minutes left. The Huskies clearly had momentum. They were likely to score a touchdown. And the Rockets had all three timeouts.
Beckman didn't call one, allowing the clock to tick off and NIU to score its game-winning touchdown with 19 seconds left. Here's what Beckman said about the decision afterward:
"We talked about it on the [headsets]. I thought it was a double-edge sword. We felt we had them moved back as a result of a couple penalties, and we could stop them. I had confidence in our defense."
Never mind the fact Beckman had confidence in a defense that had already allowed 56 points and 528 yards to that point. This was a bad decision because the Huskies offense played in the no-huddle all season. You want to slow them down, not speed them up. When NIU is fast, it's dangerous.
Running the clock off helped disguise another Beckman blunder: going for two points after RB Adonis Thomas' 4-yard touchdown run with 10:30 left. (Or after Page's fifth touchdown with 10:46 left, for that matter.) Thomas' score made it 53-49. True, two more points would've required NIU to make an extra point to win if it scored a touchdown. But, a Rockets extra point would've made the score 63-61 after the Huskies final touchdown, and a Toledo field goal would have won the game instead of sending it to overtime. It was poor planning ahead.
Lastly, after watching it live, the two-quarterback rotation makes no sense to me. Toledo's Austin Dantin had a terrific night. Part of that was leading the Rockets to two quick touchdowns after Tommylee Lewis' kickoff returns. But for Toledo's third possession, Beckman inserted No. 2 quarterback Terrance Owens, which had been his game plan all season. The decision backfired big time, with Toledo's offense sputtering under Owens, and the Rockets losing their momentum.
Again, Beckman is a very good coach. Clearly, he had a bad night.
4. Miraculous turnaround: I wrote this NIU team off after the Huskies lost four weeks ago at Central Michigan. Even now, even after tonight, I don't regret that. What NIU has done – winning four straight games to take control of the MAC West race – was IMPOSSIBLE back then. Nobody – absolutely, NOBODY – saw this coming.
I think a few things happened. Obviously, Central Michigan was a wake up call, and sometimes great teams need those. I think one word has had a major impact the past month: "Playoffs." It's the must-win, no-tomorrow mentality NIU has entered every game with since Central Michigan.
But, more than that, give credit to NIU's coaching staff. They used so many personnel shifts on defense, working tirelessly to find the right combination, and the final outcome was something none of them could've predicted after fall camp (some mixture of Dechane Durante, Jimmie Ward and Jhony Faustin getting a lot of playing time in the defensive backfield, Michael Santacaterina stepping up big at linebacker, Kyle Jenkins at defensive end and Ron Newcomb becoming a big-time player on the interior defensive line). Some in the fan base have criticized Doeren and his staff. I don't see how that's warranted, at all. It's amazing how much the coaches have gotten out of so little on defense.
That's enough of my ramblings. Tons to dissect and digest from this one. It was fun to watch, and no matter who won, it was a great game.
– Ryan Wood, @rwood_DDC on Twitter, firstname.lastname@example.org