DeKALB – They wasted no time in talking about it. Detroit is where they wanted to be for almost a year now.
Minutes after an 18-12 win against Eastern Michigan on Friday, Northern Illinois football coach Dave Doeren and players addressed the Mid-American Conference Championship game against Ohio at Ford Field in Detroit for the first time. Doeren referenced his trip to Ford Field in July for MAC media day. He said it felt like that brief summer visit was 10 years ago.
Senior quarterback Chandler Harnish went with Doeren that day. I met with Harnish near the media work area, in full view of the field where he walked off the field stunned after last season’s heartbreaking title game loss to Miami (Ohio).
He said the visit was motivating, a first-hand reminder that this group of Huskies had unfinished business. He couldn’t stop looking at that field.
“We need to be back here,” Harnish said that day in July.
Not hope. Not want. Need.
NIU needed to win every MAC game after the Central Michigan loss to open conference play. It needed to find a way to win three straight games on the road. It needed to win every game at home. It didn’t need to be perfect, and it wasn’t going to be on defense, but it needed to be enough.
It was. On a day when NIU’s offense encountered a rare struggle against a better-than-advertised Eastern Michigan defense, it was NIU’s defense that made enough plays to win to get that final, needed victory.
“If you look at all seven of those conference games we won, all of them but Toledo we played well defensively,” Doeren said. “And good enough to win, and very good in a couple of them. Today was one of those. Our offense has carried us throughout the season, and today was the defense’s turn.”
Some of the usual breaks that traditionally don’t go NIU’s way this year did, too. A win at the Glass Bowl against Toledo sticks out the most, but don’t forget an extra-point miss at Buffalo, a roughing-the-passer penalty against Ball State and a long fourth down in a big game Friday that, for once, didn’t haunt the Huskies. Not to mention Eastern Michigan blowing three easy touchdowns on a drop and two overthrows.
All of those were game-changers, and all of them went to NIU.
But sometimes, that’s what you need to make it to a conference title game. The Huskies are arguably the most talented team in the MAC, and one that doesn’t typically enjoy much fortune.
With a rough offensive game out of the way and history still in his sights, Harnish said the NIU offense is going to be upset this week in its preparation for Ohio, wanting to erase Friday’s game and win the Huskies’ first MAC title since 1983.
“We have 10 starting seniors on offense,” Harnish said. “I don’t think motivation and getting on the right track is going to be a problem this week.”
This is the final time that senior group that includes Harnish will play in Detroit with the Huskies, something they’ll want to talk about for a long time.
• John Sahly is the sports editor of the Daily Chronicle. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @JSahly.