YPSILANTI, Mich. – The third time was the charm for Northern Illinois Wednesday night as the Huskies defeated Eastern Michigan, 31-24, in overtime at Rynearson Stadium.
Playing in its third overtime game of the season, NIU took a seven-point lead on a two-yard run by Jordan Huff, then saw reserve linebacker Alex Schwab stop EMU running back Blake Banham on fourth and two to give NIU its first overtime win since the 2012 MAC Championship game. The Huskies lost to both Wyoming and Central Michigan in triple overtime games earlier this year.
"As soon as . . .
The overtime offensive and defensive heroics capped a 21-point comeback win as NIU trailed Eastern Michigan 21-0 at halftime. It marked the largest comeback for NIU since the 2011 MAC Championship game versus Ohio, when the Huskies trailed the Bobcats 20-0 at halftime before coming back to win 23-20. Entering the locker room at halftime Wednesday, NIU had just 141 yards of total offense to 313 for EMU and eight first downs to the Eagles' 19.
"There was no flinching," Carey said. "[The halftime locker room] was emotional, but there was no panic. The senior leaders did a great job. It was 'let's calm down and do our jobs'."
The calm confidence came even though many of the leaders were not in the game as starters Sean Folliard (LB), Joel Bouagnon (RB), Ryan Graham (QB) and Trequan Smith (S) all went down with injuries in the first half, leaving replacements Alex Schwab, Jordan Huff, Daniel Santacaterina and Brandon Mayes, respectively, in those roles.
In the end, those four players all made critical plays to give NIU its fourth win of the season as the Huskies improved to 4-7 overall, 4-3 in the MAC. Eastern Michigan fell to 6-5, 3-4.
Schwab was credited with the fourth down stop on Branham in overtime and led the Huskies with 14 tackles in the game. He entered the contest with just 13 tackles on the year. Huff scored three touchdowns, including the two-yard touchdown in overtime, a 60-yard score on the first play of the second half to put NIU on the scoreboard, and a 27-yard run that gave NIU the lead for the first time in the fourth quarter.
Huff finished the game with 173 yards on 23 carries, the most by a Huskie running back this year. Santacaterina came in when Ryan Graham took a hit to the head and went down midway through the second quarter. The redshirt freshman, who had one collegiate snap under his belt, completed five-of-15 passes for 103 yards and ran 91 times for 13 yards in leading the Huskies to all 31 of their points. His 74-yard touchdown pass to Aregeros Turner, in which he hit Turner on a short completion over the middle and saw Turner make one move and outrun everyone, pulled NIU within seven points at 21-14 at the 5:32 mark of the third period.
"I'm proud of Santa (Santacaterina), proud of Jordan, Schwab came in in place of Sean and played well, he's one of those guys that fights and he certainly did tonight. That's what it took on defense," Carey said. "Jordan was a little antsy at first but then he settled down and made tough yards as well as the big touchdown that got us started in the second half. Santa stays prepared and I give him credit. Once he calmed down and got his feet under him, he made a couple of plays that we needed to win this game.
After Huff put the Huskies ahead for the first time on a 27-yard run with 13:45 to play to give NIU a 24-21 lead, the Huskie defense got a stop when Shawun Lurry intercepted Brogan Roback at the NIU 10 yard line and returned it to the Huskie 38. The Huskies drove to the EMU 29, where Christian Hagan's 47-yard field goal hit the cross bar.
With 6:46 to play, EMU slowly drove all the way to the NIU 10 yard line. But two rushes gained just three yards and Shawun Lurry, who had four pass break-ups in the game, knocked down this one in the end zone. EMU kicker Paul Fricano made the 24-yard field goal for the tie.
Down 21-0 at half, the third quarter belonged to the Huskies. NIU scored 17 points in the quarter, most via the big play, as Huff started the period with a 60-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage to make the score 21-7 EMU just 19 seconds into the second half. Then with just over 5:30 to play in the quarter, Santacaterina found Turner over the middle and the speedy senior outran a host of Eagle defenders to the end zone for a 74-yard score, the longest of his Huskie career.
It looked like NIU would tie the game less than three minutes later when Kenny Golladay escaped on the end around and appeared to score from 57 yards out. However, replay determined that he had stepped out at the 18-yard line and Hagan kicked a 33-yard field goal with 2:36 left in the quarter to pull the Huskies within four at 21-17.
The NIU defense, meanwhile, found its stride in the period, holding Eastern Michigan to just 42 yards on 21 plays. The Huskies forced five EMU punts in the quarter after the Eagles had punted just once in the first half.
Eastern Michigan took a 7-0 lead after taking the opening kickoff and driving 82 yards in eight plays, with the final 27 yards coming on a run by Ian Ericksen for the Eagle touchdown at 12:26 of the first quarter.
Aregeros Turner returned the kickoff 43 yards but the Huskie offense was unable to get anything going and punted. Eastern Michigan went nowhere on its possession and NIU put together a drive from its 12-yard line to the EMU 19. The Huskies got third down completions from starting quarterback Ryan Graham to Golladay and Wimann and a 15-yard roughing the passer penalty, but saw the drive stall. From the 19, kicker Christian Hagan's 36-yard field goal attempt was blocked.
Eastern Michigan appeared to be ready to extend its lead after the Huskies punted and the Eagles started on their own 36. They drove to the NIU 26 where Brandon Mayes picked off Roback for his second interception of the season.
GRAHAM LEAVES GAME
On the Huskies' next possession, Graham completed a pass to Christian Blake for a first down, then appeared to be hit in the helmet and went down. Santacaterina came on for the Huskies for what would turn out to be his first extended action of the year. NIU was forced to punt again.
EMU put together another extended drive and again came up empty as its 60-yard drive ended in a missed field goal.
Santacaterina was intercepted at the 50-yard line on the Huskies' next possession and the ball was returned 17 yards to the NIU 33 yard line. From there, Eastern Michigan took eight plays to go 33 yards to put its third touchdown on the board 1:12 before halftime.