DEKALB, ILL -- Historical indicators, a host of stats, home field advantage and a huge incentive all pointed to Northern Illinois as a big favorite against the Ohio Bobcats in Tuesday night’s MAC football matchup at Huskie Stadium. None of that mattered on the scoreboard, though, as Ohio established an early lead and went on to knock off NIU, 26-21.
Ohio raised its 2015 record to 8-4 (5-2 MAC) with its third straight victory. Northern Illinois fell to 8-4 (6-2 MAC) despite historical and current indicators supporting a Huskie win. NIU had won 22 straight games in November and owned a 17-game win skein against MAC East teams. The Huskies had also won 35 of their last 36 games on home turf.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for what Northern Illinois is about, so anytime you get a chance to play a team such as this, you know it’s going to be a challenge, ”Ohio head coach Frank Solich said.
“They bring out the best in you, and you just get ready to go. I felt really good coming in with how hard our guys would play, and I thought they would really play well also,” he continued. “If we’re healthy and we’re well, and we’re playing hard, we can also be tough to beat. So I just feel really good about what these guys were able to accomplish tonight.”
Both teams had battled through injuries this year and faced more in their regular season finale.
NIU freshman quarterback Ryan Graham, who stepped in after starter Drew Hare went down for the season at Toledo, guided the Huskies to several key victories. Graham was hurt in Tuesday’s action, putting untested freshman Tommy Fielder at the helm.
Ohio, meanwhile, had Derrius Vick at the controls earlier this year and started J.D. Sprague against NIU. Most recently, he had performed well (15 of 22, 275 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs) against Ball State in Ohio’s last game. Like Graham, however, Sprague left Tuesday’s game.
How much impact the quarterback situation had – directly or indirectly – on the outcome might be difficult to measure. One thing that was not difficult to measure was Ohio’s ability to thwart the Huskies run game.
Northern Illinois entered Tuesday as the MAC’s top running team (226.0 ypg). Individually, Joel Bouagnon ranked second with an average of 106.8 ypg. He was held to 37 yards on 16 rushes and no touchdowns. Collectively, the Huskies gained 73 yards on 38 trips.
“We had a big game ahead of us, and I think our team responded well during practice,” Ohio redshirt sophomore linebacker Chad Moore said. “We came out with a bunch of energy, and our defense got back to our old ways, and that’s just attack and react.”
Ohio’s offense, meanwhile, was thriving on the ground. A.J. Ouellette led the way with 30 carries for 140 yards. As a group, Ohio amassed 230 rushing yards, helping it hold a 35:37 to 24:23 advantage in time of possession.
The Bobcats added another 168 yards and two touchdowns through the air. Sprague completed 6 of 10 for 92 yards with one TD in his time at the helm. Windham added 76 yards with one TD and one interception while connecting on 8 of 17. The interception was a long pass into the end zone as the second quarter expired.
Special teams also came through for the ‘Cats. Kicker Josiah Yazdani converted four of five field goal attempts, and the one that was blocked ended up as an Ohio first down. The Bobcats also capitalized on a fumbled punt by NIU.
Ohio opened scoring with 28-yard Sprague to Jordan Reid pass play that capped a seven-play, 80-yard drive at 6:36 of the first quarter.
The Bobcats, however, then set up NIU’s first score with one of two turnovers on the evening. Sprague hit Sebastian Smith with a pass, only to have the ball come loose. It was recovered by Nolli Cameron Clinton-Earl at Ohio’s 22. Four plays later, Jordan Huff ran it in from five yards out to knot the score at seven all.
Ohio took over in the second quarter, scoring three times to take a 20-7 halftime lead. NIU opened the gates with a fumbled punt that was recovered by Jacob Hale at the Huskies 23.. Yazdani connected on a 22-yard field goal five plays later.
A Huskie three-and-out, followed by a 21-yard punt, set up Ohio’s next drive at the NIU 44. After a short completion, Ouellette ran four straight times. Windham finished with a five-yard TD pass to Keith Heitzman to forge a 17-7 Ohio lead.
After another Northern Illinois punt, the Bobcats went on an 11-play drive. It stalled at the NIU 14, but Yazdani came on for a 31-yard field goal that made it a 20-7 Ohio advantage at the break.
“We just dug ourselves too big a hole in the first half,” Northern Illinois head coach Rod Carey said. “We didn’t execute on offense in the first half at all. We’d have a good play and then shoot ourselves in the foot.”
The Huskies, who had punted five times and fumbled away a punt return over the first two quarters, would punt four more times and end another possession on downs over the final 30 minutes.
Northern Illinois finally broke through for a second touchdown with 9:43 left in the third quarter as the Huskies covered 86 yards in three plays – all passes. Graham hit Juwan Brescacin for 62 yards on the second play. After a holding penalty, Graham found Kenny Golladay on a 27-yard strike for the score. Despite its struggles, NIU trailed 20-14 with plenty of time left.
Several possessions later, Ohio put together an 11-play drive that spanned the late third and early fourth quarters. Facing fourth and six at the NIU nine, Ohio called on Yazdani again, and he came through with a critical field goal from 26 yards out.
A good kickoff return by D.J. Brown to the Huskies 46 went for naught as an illegal block penalty brought NIU back to its own 10. Ohio’s defense limited the Huskies to one yard over three plays, and a 27-yard punt gave OU possession on the NIU 38.
It momentarily appeared the Huskies had dodged a bullet when Ben Compton blocked a 48-yard field goal try by Yazdani, but Kent Berger ended up returning the ball 20 yards for an Ohio first down. Yazdani got another try from 26 yards out and this time put it through for his fourth field goal of the evening.
Now down 26-14, Northern Illinois needed some chunk plays. Instead, Ohio’s defense gave ground grudgingly, if at all. It took the Huskies 10 plays (2:23 on the clock) to move 39 yards on the ensuing possession. A Fielder pass on fourth-and-nine picked up seven, and Ohio took over.
The Bobcats went three and out, but NIU had to burn two time outs along the way. Moreover, Ohio’s punt put the hosts back on their own 10-yard line.
Fieldler ran once and completed six of eight passes as NIU covered 90 yards in 2:30. Fielder, seeing his first game action, hit Golladay for 11 yards and a touchdown to finish the drive.
The PAT left NIU trailing 26-21, but there was just 1:45 left on the game clock. When the Huskies on-side kick failed to turn the ball over, Ohio ran out the clock.
“I thought we had a chance at 20-14,” Carey said. “We got caught on a blitz; Ryan got hurt, and we lost some of that momentum we had built. Tommy came in and did a nice job. It just took him little while, and he ran a really nice drive there at the end.”