DETROIT - The 2011 Northern Illinois Huskies were determined to rewrite the script.
In its two previous MAC Championship games at Ford Field in Detroit, in 2005 and 2010, NIU had lost in heart-breaking, last-minute fashion, to Akron and Miami (Ohio), respectively. So it was only fitting that the 2011 team not only rewrote the script, they flipped it when sophomore kicker Mathew Sims made a 33-yard field goal with no time on the clock to defeat Ohio, 23-20.
Northern Illinois (10-3) won its first Mid-American Conference Championship in 28 years by tying its biggest comeback victory in modern history. The Huskies trailed Ohio 20-0 after a disastrous first half that saw NIU commit three first-half turnovers and get fooled on a reverse pass for a score while league MVP Chandler Harnish was limited to 13 rushing and 35 passing yards.
NIU used the same "never say die" attitude that saw the team win four games by six points or less to score 16 points in the final quarter, while the oft-maligned Huskie defense kept the Bobcats off the scoreboard in the entire second half. Northern Illinois held Ohio (9-4) to just 70 total yards after halftime with 31 on the ground and 39 in the air on four-of-11 passing. The Huskie defense, which had not recorded an interception in four games, picked off OU quarterback Tyler Tettleton three times with defensive backs Jhony Faustin, Dechane Durante and Jimmie Ward recording the INTs.
Senior wide receiver Nathan Palmer, who laid on the ground in the corner of the Ford Field endzone in tears and disbelief a year ago, this time shed tears of joy in the middle of a celebration after catching four passes for 115 yards, including two huge second half touchdowns, to earn game MVP honors. Palmer also ran the ball four times for 17 yards. Harnish finished the game with 250 passing yards and three touchdown passes. In addition to hitting Palmer on touchdown throws of 39 and 22 yards, he threw a 32-yard touchdown pass to Martel Moore.
Sims' game-winning field goal came after a missed point after touchdown on the Huskies' second score, just his second missed PAT of the season, and sent the 2011 Huskies streaming onto the field in joy and Northern Illinois fans, former players and alums into celebrations across the country.
"That is a great feeling, to be celebrating on the field with these guys," Doeren said. "For one single moment, you are the best and no one can ever take that away from you. I am so proud of our team. We've fought through a lot of tough things. These guys have dealt with a lot of transition. They lost this game a year ago, they lost their coaches after the game, they took me and my staff and my family into their lives and I couldn't be happier."
As for Harnish, when asked after the game if Friday's win erased last year's memories, he had a simple retort.
"What happened last year?" he said with a smile. "Like I said yesterday, this is where our senior class would leave our legacy, and why not go out the hard way? The only history worth a damn is the one we create today. We had some bad demons we wanted to avenge from last year, but this feels good."
The Huskies' second-half comeback began on their second drive of the third quarter on the NIU 22-yard line. Northern Illinois drove 78 yards in 10 plays and 3:52 with Palmer lunging to the end zone to put NIU on the scoreboard with 6:19 left in the quarter.
The teams traded punts before Ohio put together its most successful drive of the second half, advancing from the OU 19-yard line to the Huskie 19. But MAC Specialist of the Year Matt Weller, who had not missed a field goal from inside 40 yards all season, was wide right on a 36-yard attempt.
Northern Illinois pulled within seven points with 7:36 on the clock as Harnish engineered a four-play, 63-yard drive that consumed just 1:19 on the clock. Perez Ashford made a 19-yard reception on the drive and Harnish's 32-yard pass to Moore made the score 20-13. Moore caught three passes for 59 yards in the game.
NIU got the ball back with 4:36 to play after a 12-yard punt by OU's Paul Hershey put the ball at the Huskie 43-yard line. Harnish drove Northern Illinois 57 yards in six plays and 1:50. Moore caught a 12-yard pass and Jasmin Hopkins ran for 16 yards before Palmer caught a perfectly thrown pass on the post route. Sims' PAT tied the game.
After the Huskie defense forced a three-and-out, Harnish led Northern Illinois 48 yards in five plays to the Ohio 16. Perez Ashford made a leaping 27-yard catch along the sideline and Moore caught a 15-yard pass to put NIU in position. After OU called two timeouts to try and freeze Sims, the NIU kicker calmly booted the game winner, his second in three games.
"I tell `em all week it's not about Ohio, it's about you and that was certainly true in this game," Doeren said. "In the first half, we didn't make enough plays. In the second half, we made all the plays we needed to. This is a championship for these guys, but it's also for all of our fans, the former guys and the whole university."
Each team's first drive of the game began with an interception. NIU's Jhony Faustin earned his first career interception, and the Huskies' first pickoff since the Buffalo game, when he intercepted OU quarterback Tyler Tettleton in the endzone. Three plays later, Harnish threw just his fifth INT of the season, and his first since the Western Michigan game, when his pass went off the hands of Da'Ron Brown and into the arms of OU's Noah Keller.
Following the interception, NIU's defense held Ohio to just six yards and the Bobcats were forced to settle for a 30-yard field goal by Matt Weller.
The Huskies were forced to punt and Ohio got the ball back at its 30-yard line. Tettleton hit LaVon Brazill for 23 yards, and Ohio converted on fourth and one from the NIU 38 to keep the drive alive. Three plays later, Ohio's Phil Bates hit Donte Foster on a reverse pass for 24 yards and the Bobcats led 10-0 with four minutes to play in the first quarter.
Northern Illinois gained one first down before being forced to punt again. The Bobcats advanced for their own 27 to the Northern Illinois five-yard line before three plays netted just one yard and Ohio had to settle for a 21-yard field goal and a 13-0 lead with 10:55 left in the half.
NIU Tommylee Lewis fumbled on the ensuing kickoff and the Bobcats recovered. Their drive was stopped by the Huskies' Dechane Durante, who picked off Tettleton at the NIU 41.
The Huskies' offense seemed to pick up steam as Harnish hit Nathan Palmer on a 37-yard pass to the Ohio 15 and picked up 11 yards rushing to the OU four-yard line. But on second and goal, Harnish lost the ball as he was being sacked and Keller recovered for the Bobcats to quash NIU's best scoring chance of the half.
Ohio converted a pair of third downs on its ensuing drive and scored on an 18-yard run by Tettleton to take a 20-0 lead with 2:35 left in the half.
The Northern Illinois senior football players will be in attendance and honored Saturday during halftime of Northern Illinois' men's basketball game versus Nebraska-Omaha. The game tips off at 3 p.m. in the NIU Convocation Center. Tickets are available at www.NIUHuskies.com or at the door.
NIU awaits determination of its bowl destination. The Mid-American Conference expects to announce all of its 2011-12 bowl pairings this Sunday, Dec. 4.