DETROIT – The inevitable question was asked, just like Northern Illinois quarterback Chandler Harnish expected.
The demons were exorcised. The bad memories were replaced with celebration. The Mid-American Conference championship trophy sat a couple steps away, and it was his.
Did it make up for what happened last year?
“What happened last year?” Harnish asked.
The rhetorical question was more of an answer. After NIU sophomore kicker Mathew Sims’ 33-yard field goal as time expired sealed a 23-20 win in front 13,052 fans at Ford Field and the first MAC championship since 1983, that was all that mattered. Sims’ kick completed the largest second-half comeback in NIU modern history.
This time, there was no magical fourth-and-20, no gut-wrenching defeat. Players no longer had to speak of unfinished business, or mention the hypotheticals of what might have been. They simply mobbed midfield, moshed in celebration and soaked in their accomplishment.
“That’s all we’re thinking about now,” Harnish said. “It’s all in the past. That was one thing coach [Dave] Doeren made a very strong point about early in the year, and I think maybe even before the season started – last year is over. That’s how we went about it.
“Yeah, we had some bad demons that we wanted to avenge from last year, but this feels pretty good.”
It was an improbable victory, maybe even more shocking than last season’s upset to underdog Miami (Ohio). NIU (10-3) trailed 20-0 at halftime, and the MAC’s most explosive offense during the course of the season had only 92 yards. There were no promising signs of a comeback, not after receiver Jamison Wells’ fumble ended the Huskies first drive of the second half.
After entering the game with 14 turnovers in 12 games, Wells’ fumble was NIU’s fourth turnover.
Doeren said his team simply wasn’t itself. And he was right, in good and bad ways.
Despite the 20-point deficit, Doeren said he was confident his team could make a comeback if the offense returned to form. The Huskies defense – maligned at best, embarrassing at worst for much of the season – had been put in just about every negative situation in the first half, yet refused to yield. Somehow, the game was still in reach when NIU returned for the third quarter.
“I think we felt pretty good,” defensive end Sean Progar said. “We made a few mistakes communication-wise in the first half. But the best plays that they had in the first half were trick plays, so we knew we were doing pretty good on our base stuff.”
NIU’s offense began its comeback with a 39-yard touchdown pass from Harnish to senior receiver and the game’s MAC West MVP Nathan Palmer with 6:19 left in the third quarter. A 32-yard pass from Harnish to receiver Martel Moore pulled the Huskies within one possession with 7:36 left, but Sims missed the extra point attempt.
The defense continued its second-half shutout, giving NIU the football with less than five minutes left in the fourth quarter. The Huskies marched down, and a 22-yard pass from Harnish to Palmer tied the game with 2:52 left.
Then, after one more defensive stop, Sims made his game-winning kick.
“I don’t think they necessarily had any signature drives,” said Ohio senior linebacker Noah Keller, the MAC East MVP. “They just had big, explosive plays that they generated points off of. You take away three or four plays, it’s still a shutout.”
Last year might have been over when this fall began, but it wasn’t forgotten. Even after Friday’s game, Doeren talked about all the pain the program experienced these past 28 years.
Then he discussed how gratifying it was to put it in the past.
“That one moment, when we were all dancing on the field together – I don’t know how you guys felt, but I felt pretty good,” Doeren said, turning to his players beside him. “That’s what it’s all about, that one single moment that you are the best. Our guys earned every second of it.”