The two teams took almost identical paths.
Both had sub-.500 Mid-American Conference records. Both were counted out. But, somehow, Northern Illinois and Ohio saved their seasons. Win streaks turned into MAC division championships, and the two teams will play each other at 6 p.m. Friday for the conference championship at Ford Field in Detroit.
Neither NIU coach Dave Doeren nor Ohio coach Frank Solich were in the mood to reflect much Monday, not with the ultimate goal awaiting at week’s end. Maybe that’s why there was another similarity: neither seemed to remember their season’s turning point.
“I wish I could put a finger on it,” Doeren said. “I think it was more just the consistency our staff and players had, and our belief in each other and unwillingness to flinch.”
“I don’t know that there is any one thing that I can point to,” Solich added. “I know that after you lose two straight, your next practice is going to tell you a lot about your team and how they go about things right away. Do you have to talk them into good practices? Or do they come out ready to go, wanting to get things straightened out?”
Solich said he never had to talk his team into giving the effort to get better. Each day, the players were there, willing to learn, wanting to work.
And, two states west, so was NIU.
“After that final Central Michigan loss, we kind of all got together and said, ‘Hey, enough is enough,’ “ NIU senior middle linebacker Pat Schiller said. “If we want to obtain our ultimate goal of winning a MAC championship, we’ve got to play better. And I think we really did that.”
NIU had the tougher path ahead.
No, the Huskies didn’t lose two conference games, much less in consecutive weeks. But Central Michigan plummeted to the bottom of the West after beating NIU, which still had major challenges against Western Michigan and Toledo.
Meanwhile, Ohio’s two losses came by one point in a shootout at Buffalo, and by three at home against Ball State. The Bobcats missed a field goal that would’ve tied the Cardinals near the end of regulation. In a similar situation, the Huskies beat the Cardinals.
“It was not a deal where we were just disheartened,” Solich said. “Both those games were very close ball games ... so it wasn’t like we just lost total confidence. But yet, you still have to regroup, and our guys did a great job of regrouping and finding a way to win football games as we took on the rest of our schedule.”
Success isn’t the only link between NIU and Ohio. There also is heartbreak. After getting to the championship game multiple times the past few seasons, both also are trying to win their first title in decades.
It would be the Huskies’ first MAC championship trophy since 1983. The Bobcats haven’t won since 1968. Either way, Friday is when the two teams’ paths diverge.
“Our goal has not been to make it to the MAC Championship game,” Solich said. “Our goal has been to win a MAC championship. And so that’s a step that we’re going to have to take. Ideally, that step would come this year.”
“I don’t know if we look at it as if we need to,” NIU quarterback Chandler Harnish said, “but it’s something that we want to do so badly for this university. Because let’s be honest, NIU has been through a lot over the last 10 years – whether it’s close wins, close losses. We’ve had a school shooting. We’ve had a lot of different things happen that football just tends to bring this university closer, and it makes it a better place to be around.”