Created:Friday, November 25, 2011 3:06 p.m.CDT

NIU defends MAC West title

Northern Illinois receiver Willie Clark (10) celebrates his touchdown reception with teammate Martel Moore during the first quarter Friday in DeKalb. Northern Illinois defeated Eastern Michigan, 18-12, to win the Mid-American Conference West championship for the second straight season.

DeKALB – With one of season's best defensive efforts, Northern Illinois held on for an 18-12 win against Eastern Michigan before a Friday crowd of 13,012 at Huskie Stadium.

The victory clinched NIU's second straight division title and advanced the Huskies (9-3, 7-1 Mid-American Conference West) to the MAC Championship game Dec. 2 at Ford Field in Detroit against East Division champion Ohio. NIU has won seven straight games and is 15-1 in the MAC the past two seasons.

"Really, really excited to go back to Detroit," NIU coach Dave Doeren said, noting that he along with quarterback Chandler Harnish and defensive end Sean Progar were most recently there in July for MAC media day. "Finally, we can quit talking about Detroit and go back. We're just really, really excited to play Ohio. I have great respect for their team, and coach [Frank] Solich and his staff. It's going to be a fun week."

NIU announced its ticket office will be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday for MAC Championship game tickets.

Eastern Michigan (6-6, 4-4 MAC) trailed six points and had a second-and-10 from NIU's 31-yard line on its final possession, but two straight sacks pushed the Eagles back to a 4th-and-35. On the fourth down, quarterback Alex Gillett's pass struck tight end Garrett Hoskins' hands near the first-down marker, but NIU cornerback Sean Evans' hit jarred the ball loose.

It was one of many plays NIU's defense made.

With their offense uncharacteristically struggling, the Huskies held the Eagles to 280 yards on 73 plays. Eastern Michigan had 133 rushing yards on 48 carries (2.8 yards per carry) and was held to 8 of 18 on third down. Its lone touchdown was a 24-yard pass from Gillett to receiver Nick Olds that set the final score with 6:19 left.

With a constant, swirling wind, NIU quarterback Chandler Harnish had one of his worst passing games this season, finishing 9 of 19 for 98 yards. Much of his production through the air came on a 54-yard touchdown pass to receiver Willie Clark. But in his final game at Huskie Stadium, the senior had 148 yards on 17 carries (8.7 average) including a 68-yard touchdown run that gave NIU an 18-6 lead with 12 seconds left in the third quarter.

Despite Harnish's 246 yards of total offense, the win was about a defense that showed how much it has improved throughout the fall. After carrying the team so many times, the offense finally had to rely on its defense.

Harnish understood the significance.

"It was on the defense's back, and I was just hoping and praying they would come through," Harnish said of watching Eastern Michigan's final drive. "And I was confident. We were getting great pass rush all day, they were playing great, and they carried us. I think maybe they were returning the favor. I'm just so thankful that we've got those guys on the defensive side."

Will NIU football win the MAC this season?