Final: NIU 18, EMU 12
NIU forced on a incompletion on 4th-and-35 with less than two minutes left – a play that was close to resulting in a first down – and the Huskies held on to beat Eastern Michigan 18-12.
The win seals NIU's second straight MAC West title, advancing the Huskies to next week's MAC Championship game in Detroit. It also prevents Eastern Michigan from becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 1995.
Check HuskieWire later Friday for full coverage.
3:41 fourth quarter: NIU 18, EMU 12
The MAC West title potentially on the line, NIU's defense will take the field with 3:33 left in the fourth quarter, needing to prevent EMU from driving 68 yards for a potential game-tying touchdown.
Lots at stake here.
End third quarter: NIU 18, EMU 6
He had been close early to breaking a long one, so it seemed only a matter of time before NIU senior QB Chandler Harnish made a game-changing run. But with Eastern Michigan's defense containing well through almost two quarters, those chances appeared less likely.
Lesson for the day: Never doubt Harnish.
The Huskies senior QB broke an ankle tackle and took off for a 68-yard touchdown with 12 seconds left in the third quarter. NIU questionably went for two points instead of the PAT (usually take the sure points in the third quarter), taking a 18-6 lead as the fourth quarter begins.
Harnish now has 129 rushing yards on 13 carries. He's also 8 of 18 for 95 yards and a touchdown.
1:43 third quarter: NIU 12, EMU 6
NIU avoided a major scare when Eastern Michigan QB Alex Gillett's pass sailed over the head of open tight end Garrett Hoskins, a missed third-and-goal opportunity that certainly would have resulted in a touchdown if successful.
But Kody Fulkerson's 24-yard field goal pulled EMU within one possession, 12-6, with 1:43 left in the third quarter. NIU returner Tommylee Lewis ran the kickoff near the Huskies 40, but a holding brought it back to the 23.
The Huskies have been held to 188 yards on 39 plays, less than half their season average.
9:01 third quarter: NIU 12, EMU 3
As the clock continues to tick in this third quarter, the nerves have to be building.
So far, NIU's defense has played its best game this season, especially given the circumstances. But the Huskies offense has sputtered and stalled after an early touchdown, failing to put 18-point underdog Eastern Michigan away. Instead, NIU's lead is just 12-3 with 9:01 left in the third quarter, and the Eagles will get the ball at their 38-yard line.
Huskies hoping to get more solid play from a defense that has done far more than enough so far.
Halftime: NIU 12, EMU 3
NIU's defense limited Eastern Michigan for one half, and the Huskies take a 12-3 lead into the locker room. Curiously, they didn't try to extend their lead on the second quarter's final possession.
NIU got the ball at its 21-yard line with two timeouts and 1:18 left in the half. The Huskies ran the ball once for a couple yards and, after a false start, kneeled it down.
Maybe it's a testament to how well EMU's defense has played. NIU, one of the most explosive teams in the nation, has just one touchdown and 183 yards on 36 plays. Senior QB Chandler Harnish is 7 of 13 for 89 yards and a 54-yard touchdown to senior receiver Willie Clark. Harnish also has a game-high 57 rushing yards on 11 carries, made even more impressive since he's clearly been the focual point of the Eagles' defense.
EMU QB Alex Gillett sputtered statistically after starting well, finsihing the half 4 of 10 for 85 yards. Gillett, the Eagles leading rusher, has run twice for two yards. But he's also been able to break out of the pocket a couple times and improvise, extending plays for his team.
The Eagles will get the ball to start the third quarter. Because of NIU's defense – which has only allowed 100 yards on 28 plays, 15 rushing yards on 18 carries and 3 of 8 third-down conversion rate – they will trail two possessions.
4:44 second quarter: NIU 12, EMU 3
With its offense stalling a bit, NIU is getting it done unconventionally. The Huskies got a safety on its last defensive series. The ensuing possession resulted in a field goal.
Those five points were enough to give NIU a two-possession, 12-3 lead with 4:44 left in the second half.
The Huskies defense has been tremendous, holding Eastern to 69 yards on 21 plays. The Eagles have two rushing yards on 13 carries, and are only 2 of 6 on third down.
We'll see how NIU's D finishes the first half.
9:37 second quarter: NIU 7, EMU 3
With its defense playing well, NIU has been one touchdown from breaking the game open the past few possessions. But, after a shaky start, Eastern Michigan's defense has been just as solid.
It's been a defensive struggle so far. NIU punter Ryan Neir just downed his boot inside the Eagles' 1-yard line, giving the Huskies defense great field position. NIU's D has already worked itself out of a couple tough situations, including a short field after the Eagles defense tackled Neir before he had a chance to punt two possessions ago.
Which defense will crack first?
End first quarter: NIU 7, EMU 3
Eastern Michigan needed two yards to tie the game, and had four plays to get it. But NIU's defense had perhaps its most impressive goal-line stand of the season, even forcing the Eagles to lose one yard in those four plays.
The Eagles had to settle for a 20-yard field goal from Kody Fulkerson with 11 seconds left in the first quarter, preserving a 7-3 lead for NIU.
Chandler Harnish lead the Huskies with 32 yards on four carries and has been one defender from breaking a long gain a couple times. The senior quarterback also is 2 of 5 for 58 yards, including a 54-yard touchdown pass to senior receiver Willie Clark.
EMU QB Alex Gillett has been impressive, finishing the first quarter 3 of 5 for 71 yards and almost single handedly leading the Eagles on their scoring drive. But when the Huskies defense needed to step up, it did. That's been the difference in the first 15 minutes.
10:17 first quarter: NIU 7, EMU 0
NIU has already shown it can have success running the football, with 41 yards on five carries. Those attempts also set up a play-action fake to Jasmin Hopkins for a 54-yard touchdown from QB Chandler Harnish to receiver Willie Clark. The Huskies lead 7-0 early in the first quarter.
Except for a few early penalties, NIU's offense is clicking on all cylinders. Harnish has been one defender from breaking a long run a couple times. The Huskies defense has also started well, holding EMU to a three-and-out on its first series.
Eastern Michigan won the coin toss and deferred to the second half. NIU will receive the football first with a chance to take an early lead.
It's sunny but cold at this early, 10 a.m. start. The temperature is crawling at 44 degrees. The wind is swirling, as always. Officially, it's 18 mph out of the south, but this is Huskie Stadium. It's coming from all directions.
5 minutes before kickoff:
Just a few minutes before the game starts, here's a recap of NIU's five keys today...
1. Four quarters: It's odd, but for whatever reason NIU has struggled putting together four quality quarters this season. Last week, the Huskies trailed 14-0 after the first to a Ball State team that was looking for a road upset. Eastern Michigan is good enough to make things interesting – like Ball State did – if NIU doesn't play a complete game. There's no sense in letting the underdog develop confidence.
2. Gillett's legs: He isn't quite to NIU quarterback Chandler Harnish's level, but Eastern Michigan junior Alex Gillett is one of the top dual-threat players in the MAC. This season, Gillett leads the Eagles with 669 rushing yards, including a long of 58. He also has rushed for three touchdowns. It will be important for NIU to contain Gillett in the pocket so he can't make big plays running the football.
3. Third-down defense: NIU held Ball State to 3 of 14 on third down last week, but Eastern Michigan will be a different challenge. With Gillett's running ability, defenses must be aware of the quarterback when plays break down. It will be important for the Huskies to keep Gillett from extending drives by running with the football.
4. 40-point dash: Early in the season, NIU lost twice despite scoring more than 40 points in both games. Those issues appear to be over. The Huskies defense is playing well enough for its offense to shine. NIU has scored at least 40 points in five of its past six games, all of which have been wins. Another 40-point performance should be good enough today.
5. Composure: It will be the most emotional day of the season so far, with 19 seniors playing their final games in Huskie Stadium. Sometimes, players can have the tendency to press a little too much in games like this. NIU must relax and settle into its normal pace.
20 minutes before kickoff:
Time for some Daily Chronicle brigade predictions...
A couple of weeks ago, I thought NIU would struggle with one of its final two home games and win in a blowout in the other. Given how last week went, this one would be the blowout. Prediction: NIU 41, Eastern Michigan 10 – John Sahly
You could make the argument that the emotions of senior day, or the pressure of the MAC Championship game looming, could be a major distraction. That may be the case for other teams in this situation. No way NIU comes close to losing this. Prediction NIU 52, EMU 17 – Anthony Zilis
I think senior day may be a tad closer than some expect. These Eastern Michigan Eagles are a different bunch from most of the past decade-plus. They're tougher. They're more physical. They're built the right way, with an intense desire to run the ball and stop the run. Unfortunately for them, they're also far less talented than NIU. Prediction: NIU 42, Eastern Michigan 24 – Ryan Wood
40 minutes before kickoff:
DeKALB – Good morning, NIU fans. Daily Chronicle beat writer Ryan Wood here, ready for what should be an intriguing game – if nothing else.
One path toward redemption will take a critical, late step toward fruition today. Another will be dashed. Those often are the stakes in late November, the final regular-season kickoff. It rarely involves Eastern Michigan.
The visiting Eagles – 18-point underdogs – could become bowl eligible for the first time since 1995 with a win today. They haven't been to a bowl since 1987. Even though Eastern Michigan (6-5) has the traditional six wins necessary to be considered for a bowl, two came against FCS opponents. Only one counts toward an FBS team's bowl eligibility total.
For NIU (8-3), the season is on the line. The Huskies can win their second consecutive Mid-American Conference West title with a win today, putting the finishing touches on what would be a 15-1 MAC record over the past two seasons. After last season's heart-ripping loss to Miami at the MAC title game, a win would also advance NIU to the Dec. 2 game in Detroit for the second straight season.
Also, it's senior day in DeKalb, with 19 seniors – including some great ones like QB Chandler Harnish or C Scott Wedige – playing their final games in Huskie Stadium. It's a chance for them to have one final fond memory, or a horrible one. We'll find out soon enough.
Continue following HuskieWire for in-game updates and full coverage afterward.
– Ryan Wood, firstname.lastname@example.org