DeKALB – The pass hit Eastern Michigan tight end Garrett Hoskins’ hands, and Huskie Stadium became Ford Field. A miracle was about to ruin the season. Again.
Almost a full year has passed since the fourth down against Miami (Ohio). This time, the details were different. But while Hoskins snatched the football, an impossible fourth-and-35 conversion within grasp, NIU senior center Scott Wedige’s thoughts snapped to 2010.
“I thought it was the MAC championship last year,” Wedige said.
And then, it wasn’t. NIU cornerback Sean Evans and safety Demetrius Stone hit Hoskins like two quick jabs, jarring the football loose and incomplete. NIU’s offense ran out the clock, sealing an 18-12 win against Eastern Michigan before a Friday crowd of 13,012.
After starting Mid-American Conference play with what seemed like a crippling loss, NIU’s seventh straight win clinched a second straight West Division title. The Huskies (9-3, 7-1 MAC West) are 15-1 in regular-season conference games the past two years, the first team to hit that mark since Miami in 2003 and 2004. They play MAC East champion Ohio in the MAC Championship game at 6 p.m. Friday at Ford Field in Detroit.
But Friday, NIU’s typically explosive offense didn’t make it possible. Instead, the Huskies churned out one of their best defensive performances this season, right up until the end.
“I’m obviously biased because of my background,” said Doeren, a defensive coach throughout his career, “but there’s nothing better than stopping somebody at the end of the game to win. As a defensive player, I know that’s a huge deal. Their offense did a nice job today keeping it close, running the ball, not making mistakes.”
Eastern Michigan was persistent most of the day, even when it wasn’t scoring. On the Eagles’ final drive, they had a second-and-10 from NIU’s 31-yard line and two minutes left. But two straight sacks forced the fourth-and-35, and the miracle never materialized.
Eagles coach Ron English said Hoskins has some of the team’s surest hands. He saw him grab the football.
“But I saw the safety too, and I’ve coached [defensive backs] for a lot of years,” English said. “That’s a tough catch. The ball was exposed, his back was exposed and it was a bang-bang play. That’s a hard catch because of the momentum and where his hands are. Not a lot of people ever are going to make that catch.”
The Huskies allowed 48 points in their MAC opener, a loss at Central Michigan. If they had any chance of repeating as West champs, first-year coach Dave Doeren knew his defense needed to improve.
Eastern Michigan finished with 280 yards on 73 plays. It had only 133 rushing yards on 48 carries, an average of 2.8 yards per carry. Despite quarterback Alex Gillett, whose mobility extended plays and got first downs, the Eagles were held to 8 of 20 on third and fourth down.
“You can’t win championships without defense,” Doeren said.
“We knew the offense carried us through a lot of games,” said junior defensive end Sean Progar, who had one of NIU’s four sacks along with two tackles for loss. “We knew it was on us, and we took it as a challenge. ... Especially that second drive, we took that as a challenge.”
Eastern Michigan had two timeouts left as NIU’s offense trotted back onto the field. All the Huskies had to do was run the clock out on their regular season.
“We went out there,” Wedige said, “and I was like, ‘Let’s just not mess up the snap now.’ “
Wedige’s comments fit the moment. After Central Michigan, the Huskies had no margin of error. They called it the playoffs. One bad snap could change a game. One loss, they knew Detroit was out of reach.
For seven weeks, nobody was taking a play for granted. Including the final kneel downs.
“I’m just ecstatic. It was a long time coming,” Harnish said. “We’ve all talked about it, and talk is cheap until it actually happens. And finally we’re able to talk about it as a team. It’s something we’ve worked toward, and probably a lot of people didn’t believe we could do. A lot of people were against us after we got beat by Central Michigan.
“To persevere and win seven in a row, awfully happy. But we haven’t done anything yet. We have one goal in mind, and that’s it. it’s going to be a very, very focused week of preparation.”