Playing Bowling Green in a spotlight game is nothing new to Northern Illinois.
Today’s Mid-American Conference Championship Game won’t be the only time the Huskies and Falcons have played each other with a BCS berth on the line.
Should the Huskies defeat Bowling Green, NIU will be all but guaranteed a BCS bid, and most likely will being heading for the Fiesta Bowl.
Ten seasons ago, the Huskies also had the BCS in their sights before a game against the Falcons. But tonight, NIU hopes its a different story.
On Oct. 25, 2003, the Falcons ended NIU’s road to glory with a 34-18 win at Doyt Perry Stadium. The Huskies would lose to Toledo later that season, and wouldn’t make any bowl game despite finishing 10-2.
When the initial BCS standings came out the week before, NIU was ranked No. 10. Before 2006, when an extra BCS bowl game was added, a non-AQ had to finish in the top six of the final BCS standings to earn a spot. NIU already had knocked off Maryland, Alabama and Iowa State and was off to a 3-0 start in MAC play.
Former NIU cornerback Randee Drew remembers hearing about the ranking while he and some teammates were out at a restaurant.
“I didn’t see it at first and I saw it, and said, ‘Wow that’s a big step for the team and the program,’ ” Drew said. “Once the BCS came in, everything got magnified.”
Bowling Green came into the game with only one loss, and the Falcons were out for revenge. In late 2002, Bowling Green visited Huskie Stadium at 8-0, but the Falcons’ dream season ended when NIU pulled off a 26-17 upset.
When the two teams took the field in 2003, it was unlike any normal MAC game.
For starters, it was televised on ESPN2, on a Saturday afternoon. This was before #MACtion midweek games really took hold.
The College GameDay crew of Chris Fowler, Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit had their stage set up right outside Doyt Perry. ESPN came to DeKalb earlier in the week and did a couple of segments, and it was the first, and only, time GameDay ever had been on location at a MAC stadium.
“We’re walking in (to the hotel on Friday), and two rooms down and you see Fowler and Herbstreit walk in and they’re going to their room,” said Josh Haldi, the team’s starting quarterback. “We said hello and they wished us luck.”
Corso, who coached at NIU in 1984, picked the Falcons, putting on the Falcons mascot head at the end of the show, which the players were unable to watch.
As the players warmed up and took the field, they walked into an electric atmosphere. Fans packed the stadium to capacity – 31,007 were in attendance.
“It was a sea of orange,” Drew said. “Their student section was packed. The fans were loud, they were obnoxious. They were everything an opposing team wouldn’t want to walk into.”
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Bowling Green got the Huskies on their heels quickly. The Falcons jumped out to a quick 14-0 lead and led 24-3 at halftime.
Already down 7-0, NIU tried some trickery on its first possession, but it backfired. Haldi took the snap and threw the ball to receiver P.J. Fleck, who attempted a pass that was picked off. Haldi said the exchange from center wasn’t clean, which threw off the timing.
The Falcons would go right down and score again.
NIU halfback Michael Turner finished the game with 18 carries for 87 yards, but with the Huskies falling behind, they couldn’t run the ball like they wanted to. He also had a long run called back because of a holding penalty.
“I think we got behind pretty early where we just couldn’t pound Mike,” Haldi said. “They were really good offensively, they kept us off the field.”
The guy who kept NIU’s offense on the sideline was Falcons quarterback Josh Harris, who was drafted in the sixth round of the 2004 NFL Draft by the Baltimore Ravens. Harris threw for 438 yards and three touchdowns, and ran for 89 yards.
In those days, the spread offense wasn’t anywhere near as common as it is now, and Harris ran it to perfection. Urban Meyer brought the system with him to Bowling Green, and the Falcons still ran it under first-year coach Gregg Brandon.
Meyer went to Utah after the 2002 season, and in 2004, Meyer’s Utes team became the first non-AQ to make the BCS.
“Josh Harris was really a kid that could do the things you want to do in the spread,” former NIU coach Joe Novak said. “He threw it very well; he also had the ability to take off and run it. ... He was really the first spread quarterback that we had seen. He was very good.”
Had things broke right for NIU that day, who knows, it could have been the 2003 Huskies who were the first non-AQ to bust the BCS. At the time, injuries had caught up to them, as NIU was missing a number of starters, including middle linebacker Nick Duffy.
The Falcons’ last MAC division title came that season (they were in the MAC West then). With a win tonight at Ford Field, Bowling Green will win its first conference title since 1992.
Tonight in Detroit, it will be a different setting, with different players and different coaches.
But, just like in 2003, there’s a lot on the line.
“In terms of the atmosphere, it was a lot of fun. The parallel between the two games in terms of what’s at stake, we could have had that opportunity being what the current team has if we took care of business, obviously,” Haldi said. “... This game, I think [it means a lot for] both teams, specifically with Northern, with the potential to move on. Bowling Green, they’re playing for a ton, too.”