Final: NIU 23, Ohio 20
NIU sophomore kicker Mathew Sims showed why MAC coaches voted him a first team all-conference member, kicking a 33-yard field goal with no time left on the clock to lead the Huskies to a 23-20 win against Ohio in the MAC Championship game. The win gives NIU its first MAC title since 1983. NIU overcame a 20-0 halftime deficit to win.
Continue checking HuskieWire for extensive postgame coverage of the Huskies first MAC title in 28 years.
2:46 fourth quarter: NIU 20, Ohio 20
It looked awful almost the entire game. Penalties, turnovers, failed opportunities – anything that could go wrong, did.
Despite all that, NIU finds itself tied with Ohio at 20 with 2:52 left. And it's in this position because the Huskies struggling but senior-laden offense came through when it absolutely had to, a 22-yard touchdown from Chandler Harnish to Nathan Palmer – their second TD hookup of the game.
Still time left for anything to happen in regulation. But overtime seems to be an increasingly likely possibility. Anybody think that was even possible at halftime?
4:36 fourth quarter: NIU 13, Ohio 20
For NIU, one year has come down to one possession. Trailing 20-13 with 4:36 left, the Huskies will get the ball at their 43-yard line. They got a 32-yard touchdown from Harnish to Martel Moore on their last drive, pulling within one possession.
How will the Huskies follow that up? We're about to find out.
13:22 fourth quarter: NIU 7, Ohio 20
Ohio kicker Matt Weller, the MAC's Special Teams Player of the Year, had not missed one field goal within 40 yards this season. Not until his 36-yard field goal sailed wide right of the upright with 13:22 left.
It's a small sign – even a make would've kept NIU's deficit within two scores. But with the way tonight has gone, the Huskies will take anything.
End third quarter: NIU 7, Ohio 20
There will be lots of ground for NIU to make up when the fourth quarter begins. The Huskies trail Ohio, 20-7, after three, and after showing some small but positive signs.
NIU scored its first touchdown with 6:19 left in the third quarter on a 39-yard pass from Chandler Harnish to Nathan Palmer. Other than that play, Ohio's defense has tackled well, limiting the big plays and holding the Huskies to 210 yards.
6:19 third quarter: NIU 7, Ohio 20
NIU just took the first of several critical and necessary steps to complete a comeback: the Huskies finally got on the board.
QB Chandler Harnish found WR Nathan Palmer for 39 yards, a senior-to-senior completion that pulled the Huskies within 20-7 midway through the third quarter. It's still critical for NIU's defense to not let up, and there stil is a long way to go. But positive signs have to feel good for everyone on NIU's sideline. This game is not over. After the way the first half went, the Huskies will surely take that.
Halftime: NIU 0, Ohio 20
This truly is a house of horrors ... and then some.
Lots of scenarios seemed possible when the Mid-American Conference Championship game started. NIU trailing 20-0 at half, its offense mustering only a pitiful 92 yards and three turnovers, did not seem possible. But with the Huskies entering their locker room down 20 points, there is no denying the reality.
Ohio's Tyler Tettleton has been the best quarterback on the field, finishing the first half 14 of 20 for 179 yards. He's also ran eight times for 39 yards, including an 18-yard touchdown. The fact he passed for two interceptions and no touchdowns is hardly noticeable, because NIU QB Chandler Harnish had one of the worst halves of his career. The Huskies senior is 3 of 7 for 35 yards, an interception, and a critical fumble inside the red zone.
NIU's defense has played admirably given the circumstances. Multiple times, it prevented this game from getting out of hand, holding the Bobcats to field goals and stopping them from scoring despite defending short fields. But Tettleton's touchdown run with 2:35 left in the second quarter threatened to put this game out of reach. Certainly, NIU has no chance if it can't take care of the football, something it hasn't struggled doing until tonight.
2:35 second quarter: NIU 0, Ohio 20
The old cliche is still true. It's early. There's lot of football to be played. Still a long way to go.
But, after Ohio QB Tyler Tettleton's 18-yard touchdown scamper made it 20-0 Bobcats with 2:35 left in the first half, this is unquestionably the possession of the season for NIU. No points here, it's hard to envision a scenario that includes NIU holding the MAC title.
The Huskies drive will start from its 20. So far, they have 79 total yards to Ohio's 256.
9:21 second quarter: NIU 0, Ohio 10
It would have been almost impossible for NIU to come back against an Ohio team set on grinding the clock, even if it was an early deficit. That said, the Huskies defense just came up with a huge stand, holding the Bobcats to a field goal after they entered the red zone.
On the ensuing kickoff, freshman Tommylee Lewis fumbled the football and Ohio recovered. But the defense once again shut the Bobcats down, with safety Dechane Durante getting NIU's second interception. Durante may be playing his best game of the season. He's covered a lot of field so far.
You can not say enough about how NIU's defense has kept the offense in the game. Really, it's a testament to Dave Doeren and his staff. You're seeing the unit's improvement over the course of the season.
NIU still has some breath, barely. And it has the D to thank.
End first quarter: NIU 0, Ohio 10
Apparently, defense is played in the MAC. It just happens in the East.
Ohio's defense has pummelled and bullied NIU's explosive offense through the first quarter and has a 10-0 lead as the second begins. The Huskies have been held to 33 yards, while the Bobcats have 150. Clearly, NIU is fortunate to only be down 10.
For that, NIU's defense deserves some credit. The Huskies began the game with two defensive stands, one after being forced to defend a short field. They only gave up three points on that series, but the secondary has struggled to cover slot receivers – particularly Ohio's LaVon Brazill. The senior has four catches for 80 yards.
Ohio's touchdown came on a 24-yard pass from receiver Phil Bates to running back Donte Foster.
4:05 first quarter: NIU 0, Ohio 10
This was the nightmare scenario.
NIU, a slight favorite at kickoff, has looked like anything but through the first 11 minutes. The Huskies trail 10-0 after a fake reverse turned into a 24-yard touchdown pass from receiver Phil Bates to running back Donte Foster.
Despite an interception, NIU's secondary has allowed openings all game. The fake play amplified it. Foster had plenty of space for Bates to make an accurate throw.
NIU's offense has been bullied by Ohio's defense, which not many people expected. It will get the football at its 23-yard line after a short return from freshman Tommylee Lewis. If the Huskies offense doesn't get going soon, things are only going to get worse. Critical moment here, even if it's early.
10:33 first quarter: NIU 0, Ohio 3
Whew... that was a hectic start. Ohio and NIU have traded blows defensively, with each team coming up with an interception. Harnish's fifth of the season, which bounced off receiver Da'Ron Brown's hands, gave the Bobcats a short field. Ohio took advantage with kicker Matt Weller making a 30-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead with 10:33 left.
As you expect from a championship game, both teams coming out a little sluggish on offense. Both defense have made plays. And, most important, two huge early stands from the Huskies defense. If that's a sign of more things to come, NIU should be in good shape.
NIU won the coin toss and elected to defer the football to the second half. Ohio football first. The weather is obvious: indoors and ideal. The only blip was when the official said, "Northern Iow... I mean, Northern Illinois has won the toss." Yeah, drew some boos. Not his best moment.
But here we go... time for football.
5 minutes before kickoff
Five minutes to kickoff, NIU fans seem to significantly outnumber Ohio. In Detroit's cavernous Ford Field, it's hard to judge quantity. The overwhelming color is blue – the sight of empty seats. But there is more NIU red than Ohio green as kickoff approaches.
15 minutes before kickoff
This is the point when I usually rehash my five keys to a NIU victory. Thought I'd switch it up a little this time. Instead of my take, here is Joe Novak's breakdown he told me earlier this week.
Novak said Ohio reminded him of NIU's team. Here's his recipe for a win:
"The defense really played well against Eastern Michigan. They're gonna really have to play well against Ohio," Novak said. "Ohio U is going to take the ball, and they're going to try to keep it away from Chandler. The defense is going to have to make some stops, and the offense is going to have to make plays when the opportunity arises.
"I think certainly in any game like this, turnovers will be a factor. They were last year when we played in the championship. So i'd say turnovers, making some plays on defense so Ohio U doesn't just take the ball and just control it, and the offense taking control of its opportunities."
25 minutes before kickoff
That's right, time for predictions...
I've gone back and forth on this one throughout the week. Can NIU's defense make enough plays? Will Ohio limit its mistakes? Ultimately, this game is in the hands of NIU quarterback Chandler Harnish. The senior will do enough for the Huskies to win a shootout. Final: NIU 42, Ohio 37 – John Sahly
I know championships are low-scoring, and I know NIU's final game of the regular season left a lot to be desired in terms of offense. Still, I can't see either of these offenses holding anything back. I think we'll see a lot of #Harnishing and maybe we'll even see some posing from Tettleton. NIU ends the heartbreak. Final: Huskies 38, Bobcats 31. – Anthony Zilis
My boldest prediction of the year: NIU's defense holds a good Ohio offense below 30 points. I expect both offenses to have jitters early. I expect them to last much of the first quarter, at least. I expect a wild and entertaining second half. And I expect NIU to win its first MAC title since 1983. Final: NIU 34, Ohio 27 – Ryan Wood
40 minutes before kickoff
Matt Canada remembers when losing was NIU's norm. The Huskies first-year offensive coordinator isn't really in his first year. An assistant under Joe Novak from 1998-2003, Canada remembers some lean years.
Earlier this week, Canada said seeing the depths of how bad things could be has made NIU's current seven-game winning streak even more special.
"This is why we do it," Canada said. "I said [earlier this week], everybody in American wants to play in this game, a conference championship game. A lot of people are done. A lot of people are on the road, recruiting. I've certainly been on the road recruiting a lot in my career. So to be playing for the championship is awesome. It's what it's all about."
50 minutes before kickoff
NIU loaded several buses with fans for today's game. Some of them have filled in the stands. Right now, there is just a small grouping of Ohio and NIU fans. It looks to be about even in quantity, and volume. We'll see how that plays out the closer we get to kickoff.
90 minutes before kickoff
Still bare stands, but players from NIU and Ohio are on the field without pads getting their pregame warmup in. Music is playing over the Ford Field speakers to help the process.
As the first NIU players took the field, some had handheld cameras to capture their moment. Certainly a lot of excitement for everyone in the program, but undoubtly more so for the players.
I've noticed Ohio kicker Matt Weller has an interesting pregame routine. Weller, the MAC's Special Teams Player of the Year, will start by kicking field goals of about 30 yards (that's not the interesting part). Then he will place the football near the back endzone marker and try to square his kick on the goal post. It's the same routine Bears kicker Robbie Gould does. So far, I've seen Weller hit the goal post two of his three attempts.
2 hours before kickoff
Dave Doeren didn't watch the game. A year ago, he was preparing Wisconsin's defense for the Rose Bowl. The Northern Illinois job wasn't even available, so he had no need.
Doeren missed the 4th-and-20, and Miami's ens touchdown. He didn't see receiver Nathan Palmer sitting dazed on the turf, or former linebacker Alex Kube collapse on the 30-yard line in tears. The bomb of disappointment, the deafening shock of an elusive MAC title escaping one more time, did not affect him.
But Doeren didn't have to go through it to know how his players felt.
"You could see the pain. You could see the intensity. You could see the disappointment," Doeren said, describing the expression on quarterback Chandler Harnish and defensive end Sean Progar's face in July when all three were at Ford Field for MAC media day. "As people talked to them, you could also see their focus on wanting to be back. It was just like, 'God … can you believe that we lost that game?' Kind of that deal. So I know that they have an intense desire to wipe the slate clean and say that they are the MAC champs."
The opportunity comes in about two hours, at 6 p.m. when NIU and MAC East champion Ohio will meet in the MAC Championship game at Ford Field in Detroit.
I'm Daily Chronicle NIU beat writer Ryan Wood, and I'm joined by correspondent Anthony Zilis. Sports editor John Sahly is controling the operation from the office in DeKalb, and he will be checking in also. The three of us will provide extensive coverage the rest of the night on HuskieWire.
But for now, here's a look at our stories previewing tonight's game.
Joe Novak's connection to NIU has lingered since his retirement as NIU's head coach four seasons ago, but it will be lost soon. The last players he recruited to be Huskies are playing their last conference game tonight. They want to win this title for him.
One person associated with the MAC has already suggested tonight may represent a changing of the guard. Ohio sophomore QB Tyler Tettleon plays a lot like NIU QB Chandler Harnish, and Doeren said fans are in for a treat tonight.
Here's a look at the season's highlights and lowlights.
#Harnish has taken on a life of its own for NIU. The Huskies quarterback isn't the only one in this game who has a specific celebration ritual.
Lastly, NIU is looking forward to the opportunity to erase the bitter memories from last season's Motown letdown.
– Ryan Wood, firstname.lastname@example.org