The Daily Chronicle is looking back at the top 10 games of the last decade of NIU football. Today's entry, NIU vs. Ohio in 2011 is No. 8
A loss in the 2010 Mid-American Conference Championship game to Miami of Ohio still was festering in the minds of the Northern Illinois Huskies when they took to the field of the 2011 MAC title game at Ford Field in Detroit against Ohio.
Looking for the school’s first MAC title since 1983, the Huskies surrendered the first 20 points before surging in the second half to a 23-20 victory.
“To do it in the MAC Championship, especially a year after we just got beat in a heartbreaker in the MAC Championship, and where we were in that game coming back from 20-0, NIU hadn’t won a championship in
28 years, at the time, so it was really, really important for us to achieve that goal,” quarterback Chandler Harnish said. “That really put a nice cherry on top of our careers.”
Wide receiver Martel Moore, who sits No. 2 in program history in receiving yards (2,548) and touchdown catches (24), had a knack for making influential plays in big games, including touchdowns in three consecutive MAC title games and the only Huskies touchdown in the Orange Bowl loss to Florida State.
“Coming into 2011, it was like, ‘Man, we’ve got to win this,’” Moore said. “We didn’t come here to come back to a MAC Championship to lose another one. It felt like everything was going wrong in that first half.”
The Huskies had turned the ball over twice in the first half and punted three times. Jamison Wells then fumbled after a reception on NIU’s first drive of the third quarter.
Moore said he recalled the motivation provided by Harnish, linebacker Pat Schiller and linebacker Jordan Delegal at halftime.
“I just remember we were in the locker room and we knew the defense needed to come out in the second half and play a lights-out second half, Schiller said.
Finally, the Huskies defense produced its first three-and-out of the game. Harnish used his legs to pick up two first downs after a first-down pass to Nathan Palmer. Harnish then hit Palmer for a 39-yard passing score, with Palmer fighting through contact and stretching the ball just over the goal line for their first points of the game. The Huskies trailed, 20-7.
“Everybody just started doing their job,” Schiller said. “We all started rallying to the football, and we ended up making plays when we needed to make plays. We got off the field on third down. We had a couple fourth-down stops.”
Ohio missed a field goal, but had the ball with less than nine minutes remaining in the fourth quarter leading 20-7, when Jimmie Ward jumped high into the air to intercept a Tyler Tettleton pass.
“I just remember it was a post, and I went and picked the ball, and the offense got back on the field,” Ward said.
Several plays later, Perez Ashford hauled in a long first-down completion along the Ohio sideline.
Ohio’s Curtis Meyers’ had a late hit on Palmer that advanced the ball 15 yards to the Ohio 49, and several plays later, Harnish hit Moore on an acrobatic catch for a touchdown and a seven-point Huskies deficit.
Moore had three catches for 59 yards in the game.
“The ball couldn’t have been more perfectly passed by Chandler that game,” Moore said. “Especially that play, I had no choice but to catch it. I felt like we’re down, I had to make a play.”
Trailing 20-13 after a missed extra point, NIU again forced a punt, one that went only 13 yards.
NIU then picked up first downs on a pass to Moore and on a run by Jasmin Hopkins. Palmer then caught the tying touchdown pass and Matthew Sims made the extra point tie it at 20.
“Finally, we got a big play to Nathan Palmer over the middle and he made an awesome effort after he caught it,” Harnish said. “He dove in for a touchdown. Our defense really stepped up.”
Again the Huskies got a defensive stop, and again Ashford was ready to make a play.
Ashford went up between two Bobcats and came down with the catch for 27 yards.
“It was Cover 2, and I threw a hole shot where you throw in between the corner and the safety,” Harnish said. “And that safety hit him and I believe he held the ball kind of on his helmet like David Tyree did when the Giants beat the Patriots in that Super Bowl. And he held onto the ball.”
The Huskies made one last big play as Moore made an adjustment on a slant route to pick up 15 yards.
“They were afraid of Martel, and he made a nice move on a slant pass and he took the ball down inside maybe the 20-yard line and from there it was game-winning field goal time,” Harnish said.
A range of emotions went through the Huskies, and especially Schiller, as Sims’ kick split the uprights.
“I just specifically remember being on the sideline on a knee, waiting for Matt Sims to kick the field goal to win it,” Schiller said. “And when he put it through, I lost it. It was crazy. It was one of the coolest moments of my time as a Huskie.”
Harnish, who had been through three coaching staffs – he was recruited by Joe Novak and was coached by Jerry Kill and Dave Doeren – experienced the ultimate feelings of satisfaction from the game.
“I tell people that’s the most influential, most impactful, most enjoyable, satisfying moment I’ve ever experienced in sports,” Harnish said.
Dec. 11 — No. 8, NIU wins the MAC title vs. Ohio
Dec. 14 – No. 7
Dec. 18 – No. 6
Dec. 21 – No. 5
Dec. 24 – No. 4
Dec. 28 – No. 3
Dec. 30 – No. 2
Dec. 31 – No. 1