DETROIT – The hallway to Ford Field’s turf still was filled with the memories. Northern Illinois players walked through it for the first time in a year Thursday, soaked in the bitterness, absorbed the disappointment all over again.
Senior linebacker Pat Schiller remembers walking out of the same tunnel last season, after Miami (Ohio) converted a late fourth-and-20 to steal the Mid-American Conference championship. He was met by friends and family, whose expressions couldn’t mask the hurt. The six-hour bus ride back to DeKalb felt like it would never end.
“You’ve got some bad memories,” Schiller said. “Just the way that game ended last year, it was tough to go out like that. To rehash those memories again, it makes you fuel the fire a little bit and makes you realize you want to come out with a win this time.”
NIU can erase the disappointment with a win against Ohio at 6 p.m. today in the Mid-American Conference Championship game at Ford Field in Detroit. It would be the Huskies’ first MAC title since 1983, and first win in Ford Field after two gut-wrenching, last-second losses in 2005 and 2010.
Senior receiver Nathan Palmer recorded the game. He watched it nonstop for a week. He watched it with his mother, Fern, then his brother, Jovone.
Finally, his father, Joe, told him he had to move on.
“But I really don’t think we’ll be fully over it until we go out there and play ... and win,” Palmer said.
Same goes for Ohio.
The Bobcats are also 0-2 at Ford Field. There was no last-second letdown in their 20-10 loss to Central Michigan in 2009, but that didn’t make it any easier.
Ohio senior linebacker Noah Keller remembers the emptiness of walking through that tunnel without a win. Watching film, he relived the negatives. Defensive mistakes, a slow start on offense, and his team trailed 20-7 in the third quarter.
He said the emptiness of falling one game short makes this return feel different.
“We know that as nice as it is to be MAC East champs, that wasn’t our goal at the beginning of the season,” Keller said. “I’ve been there, done that before. I’m ready to take it to the next level.
“Our goal was to be the entire conference champions.”
NIU and Ohio have the same overall record at 9-3, and they share the same historical perspective. The Huskies haven’t won a title in 28 years. The Bobcats haven’t been champions since 1968. One of their droughts will end today.
Palmer doesn’t know how it will play out this time.
“I think our defense is due for one this week,” Palmer said. “And I bet, if we’re in that same situation, our defense won’t make the same mistake. It’s only fair.
“I’ve just got a good feeling about it. I don’t want to say too much, but I’ve got a good feeling about it this week.”
Hopefully, Palmer said, that good feeling will fill that tunnel with good memories.