It was new season and a new team, but the final regular season results looked very similar for the Northern Illinois Huskies, who captured their fifth straight Mid-American Conference West Division crown Friday with a 31-21 win over Western Michigan at Waldo Stadium.
Once again, the Huskies (10-2, 7-1 MAC) did it “the Hard Way,” coming back from a 14-point deficit and a nightmarish offensive first half to score the last 24 points of the contest and win their sixth straight game. Western Michigan (8-4, 6-2 MAC) committed six turnovers in the game as NIU stopped the Broncos’ six-game winning streak.
“You have to give a ton of credit to our guys,” Carey said. “It would have been easy to get down, but we knew what we had to do. Defense played great all day. They got put in some tough positions a couple times [by the offense], but they really had a mindset today. On offense, our plan was not flawed, what was flawed was our execution. At half we talked about what had to be done.”
NIU’s day got off to a great start when receiver Aregeros Turner took a little flare pass from Drew Hare down the sideline 65 yards for a touchdown on the game’s first play from scrimmage, giving the Huskies a 7-0 lead just 12 seconds into the game.
There wouldn’t be many other first half offensive highlights for NIU, although the Huskie defense kept NIU in striking distance.
The Huskies held WMU to a 29-yard Andrew Haldeman field goal on the Broncos’ first drive with a third-down stop at the NIU 12-yard line. Western Michigan then reached the end zone on its next possession as quarterback Zach Terrell hit Corey Davis on a 13-yard touchdown pass to complete a seven-play, 68-yard drive.
Two plays later, a bad snap from center that Hare couldn’t corral was recovered by WMU on the Huskies’ 28-yard line and Western Michigan freshman running back Jarvion Franklin punched it in four plays later from two yards out with just two seconds remaining in the first quarter. A failed PAT put Western Michigan on top, 16-7.
It went from bad to worse for the Huskies when Akeem Daniels fumbled the kickoff and WMU recovered at the NIU 26-yard line. However, the NIU defense once again stepped up, and Western Michigan kicked a 44-yard field goal after losing a yard in three plays.
The Huskies offense, meanwhile, could not take advantage of a pair of Western Michigan miscues. After Tyler Wedel’s punt was fumbled and recovered by Brandon Mayes at the WMU 16, Christian Hagan’s 28-yard field goal attempt was blocked. Later, a Franklin fumble forced by Corey Thomas was recovered by Dechane Durante on the NIU one-yard line. But the Huskies gave up a safety when they were penalized for a chop block in the end zone. With 4:41 to play in the half, NIU trailed 21-7.
The Broncos would not score again as the Huskies shut out an opponent in the second half of a game for the first time this year.
NIU got three points back before halftime, driving to the Broncos’ 23-yard line. From there, Hagan’s career-long 40-yard field goal was good. NIU trailed 21-10 at the break. The Huskies had the ball for just 7:23 to WMU’s 22:37 and did not convert on any of their five third-down chances. Western Michigan, meanwhile, converted six of nine third downs.
The tide seemed to turn for the Huskies on a fourth down defensive stop. Western Michigan took the second half kickoff and faced third and two on the NIU 11-yard line. William Lee and Boomer Mays combined to stop Franklin for just a one-yard gain. When Terrell tried to sprint out on fourth and one after the Broncos eschewed a field goal try, he was dropped by Corey Thomas for no gain.
Energized by the big stop, the Huskies went on a seven-play, 90-yard drive lasting just two minutes. Joel Bouagnon provided a 41-yard run along the way, and senior Akeem Daniels earned his first rushing score of the year as he ran 21 yards untouched up the middle to put NIU within four, 21-17, with 5:07 to play in the third quarter.
The Huskies took the lead for good early in the fourth. After WMU was forced to punt out of its end zone, the Huskies drove 47 yards in eight plays for the game-winning score. The running of Bouagnon, who finished the game with 70 yards on six plays, and Daniels carried NIU to the two and Hare waltzed in from there. Hagan’s PAT made it 24-21 with 11:37 to play.
WMU went three and out on its next possession and the Huskies advanced to the WMU 10 after Hare picked up 24 yards on third-and-four. When the drive stalled, Hagan attempted a field goal, which hit the left upright and WMU got the ball back.
The NIU defensive line again stepped up and set up by stopping the Broncos’ next drive. When Terrell was sacked by Sean Folliard and fumbled at the WMU 26 with 1:39 to play, the Huskies didn’t just run out the clock, they scored a clinching touchdown on Hare’s two-yard run with 46 ticks left.
NIU finished with four sacks and got interceptions from Albert Smalls and Dechane Durante in the second half. They held Broncos’ freshman running back Franklin to just 92 rushing yards on 29 carries.
The Huskies will take on MAC Champion Bowling Green, the team that defeated NIU in the 2013 championship game, at Ford Field in Detroit on Friday, Dec. 5th. The game kicks off at 6 p.m. (CT) and will be televised on ESPN2.
(Courtesy of NIU Athletics/MRO Edit)