DeKALB – The fireworks boomed with eight seconds left. Green and pink, brilliant flashes of white, they hung in the air like confetti.
Good thing the mood didn't fade eight seconds later.
"Premature celebration a little bit," Northern Illinois coach Dave Doeren said. "I'm like, 'Just hold on.' But once the fireworks are going there's nothing you can do."
The fireworks started after sophomore kicker Mathew Sims' 34-yard field goal, capping a wild 41-38 win against Ball State on Tuesday in front of a crowd of 12,391 at Huskie Stadium, and avoiding a celebration for the wrong team.
It was the Huskies' (8-3, 6-1 Mid-American Conference West) sixth straight win and third straight against the Cardinals (6-5, 4-3 MAC West), ensuring the Bronze Stalk trophy stayed in DeKalb for at least another year. More than that, NIU pulled within a victory of advancing to Detroit – site of the MAC title game in December – with a regular-season finale looming at 10 a.m. Nov. 25 against Eastern Michigan.
"A lot of heart, a lot of toughness and a lot of faith," Doeren said. "That was our theme of the week, it's one of the commandments as a team that we have. Believing in the journey, never flinching, sticking together – no matter what's thrown at you."
There was a lot thrown at NIU in this one.
It looked like the Huskies wouldn't have a chance for a game-winning field goal with just more than six minutes left. Ball State senior safety Sean Baker intercepted Chandler Harnish's pass near NIU's end zone and ran it in for what could have been a game-icing touchdown.
But a roughing the passer penalty was called on Cardinals linebacker Tony Martin, prolonging a drive that ended with Sims' 23-yard field goal to tie the game.
"I won't make any comments on the officiating," Ball State coach Pete Lembo said, bluntly.
"I was happy there was [a flag] there – finally – against them," Doeren said, referencing the nine penalties for 107 yards called against his team. "We needed a break, we got one. I think we deserved one at that point. We had a lot of stuff going against us."
Penalties were far from the only thing.
The Huskies fell behind 14-0 after the first quarter mostly because of quarterback Chandler Harnish's first fumble since the season-opening game against Army, resulting in Ball State safety Josh Howard's 92-yard touchdown return. They were down 17 points midway through the third quarter before answering with 21 straight points.
But not once, Lembo said, did he feel comfortable with his lead.
"I think the caliber of the athletes they have speak for themselves," Lembo said. "You're never comfortable against this team."
No athlete was more important than Sims.
The sophomore said he had never kicked a game-winning field goal before, even in high school. It was quite the stage for a first time, the MAC West race potentially hanging in the balance.
Doeren asked Sims after the game if Lembo used a timeout to ice him.
"I don't think so," Sims said.
Lembo did, not that Sims noticed.
"Just like any other kick," Sims said. "Just take a swing, and then actually kick it."
Sims told Doeren before the game he felt comfortable kicking within 45 yards. Doeren said he was confident the boot would split the uprights because the same situation was practiced during the week.
Sims passed that test, too.
"We called the whole team up around him, and guys were three inches from him, just calling him every name in the book, yelling at him," Doeren said. "And he nailed it right down the middle. I said, 'That's a heck of a sign right there.' "
And a heck of a win.
After the final second was gone, players took the Bronze Stalk trophy to the student section. The fireworks still booming overhead, they hoisted their prize. Each senior got a chance with it in the spotlight.
Six weeks ago, NIU's season was anything but positive. After a devastating, MAC-opening loss at Central Michigan, Detroit seemed out or reach. Doeren said his team grew a lot these past six weeks.
"We've got some scars as a team," Doeren said. "We lost some tough games early in the year. And those scars make us who we are right now. We're a tough team. We're physically and mentally tough. We've been through tough losses as a team, and we don't want to feel that again. So these guys fight and scratch and do everything they can not to feel it."