November 26, 2010: The Northern Illinois Huskies were looking good, real good. They just demolished EMU 71-3 and had won nine straight games, outscoring their opponents 416-150 in that span. The Huskies had also just climbed in to the Top 25, at #25. When Kent State demolished Ohio, it was decided. NIU would play Miami.
My brother, a professor at CMU at the time, called me after the game and asked what I thought of the Miami.
I remember my exact words, "I'd rather play Miami, they aren't as good as Ohio."
"Good," he said, "because I bought us tickets."
So six days later, I was on a train to Mount Pleasant to meet my brother. The next morning we'd drive down from there to Detroit. It was going to be my first MAC Championship game, and the word "ecstatic" doesn't even begin to describe how I felt.
Friday, December 3, 2010: The big day was upon us. We got to the game an hour and a half early and I could barely contain my excitement. NIU hadn't been here since 2005, and that game had ended so badly - Akron stunned NIU on a last second Hail Mary. This would be different. We have Chandler Harnish after all.
We were sitting with all the other Huskie fans, 13th row, right by the 40 yard line. They were awesome seats and I was probably as anxious, if not more, than the players that were about to take the field.
Our first drive we managed just 11 yards before we punted. No worries, it's early. It didn't take Miami long to score though. Thomas Merriweather broke for 47 yards on the first play for Miami and, just five plays later, would follow it up with a 1-yard TD rush on 4th and goal. But there was a silver lining, the Huskies blocked the point after. 6-0 Miami.
NIU would need just 3 plays to take the lead, as Harnish hit Martel Moore for a 69-yard strike. We would make our PAT. 7-6 Huskies. Looking good.
Again, Miami didn't get the memo that we were a better team because in just six plays they had scored again! A 7-yard TD run by Tracy Woods made it 13-7. The quick strikes continued though because, just two minutes later, Martel Moore would give the Huskies the lead a second time. His 27-yard touchdown reception put NIU up 14-13.
It looked like we'd be in for a high scoring affair. But neither team could get anything going in the second quarter and the at the half the score remained 14-13 in favor of NIU.
Miami started the second half with the ball, and once again our defense gave up big plays and allowed Merriweather to run in his second 1-yard TD. Miami 20, NIU 14.
The defenses once again held the offenses in check, but as the third quarter ended, NIU was driving. Then, on the opening play of the fourth quarter, we struck. Harnish hit Willie Clark for a 39-yard touchdown and NIU was back on top, 21-20! After the Huskies forced a quick 3-and-out, NIU had the ball again and began to drive. NIU had just passed midfield and were at the Miami 44-yard line. On 3rd-8, Harnish fires a deep ball into the endzone for Willie Clark and it's CAUGHT!
Wait...NO! He dropped it! It was in his hands, but somehow he couldn't hold on. NIU was forced to punt.
After a defensive stand from each team, NIU began a drive at their own 3-yard line with just under four minutes to go. This would be a terrible spot to go 3-and-out...and of course, that's which is exactly what they did. A Jordan Lynch run (who is this guy? And why are we running it with him?!) got us no where, and then two quick incomplete passes gave Miami the ball with 2:48 remaining at their own 48-yard line.
Ok, one stop. No big deal.
First and 10: Incomplete pass. Yes!
Thrid and 20: Incomplete pass! Just one more to go! Only 1:51 left on the clock.
Miami fans are worried, tense. They weren't breathing. We can see it on our side. One play away from being MAC Champs for the first time since 1983. All we have to do is stop this one fourth-and-twenty. Easy. I have never screamed so hard or so long for a play.
Fourth and 20: Boucher is flushed from the pocket and on the run. He has a receiver in the area, but there are three defenders. Boucher launches the ball...Tyrone Clark leaps and deflects it away! Yes! YES! YESSS!! OH NO! WHAT!? Right into the hands of Chris Givens?! How?! NOOOO!
I had no idea you could suck the air out of only half a place. Suddenly it was myself and the Huskie faithful with no breath. We watched in stunned silence as Miami lined up for their first down play, my mouth hanging open.
And two plays later it happened, NIU sends everyone on a blitz, but they forgot about the RedHawk receivers. It was an easy 33-yard touchdown to a wide open Armand Robinson. He could have walked to the endzone, had dinner, and watched the entire Godfather trilogy before a Huskie player touched him.
26-21 RedHawks with 33 seconds to play.
NIU has scored quickly all season, they can do it again. I'm sure of it. Harnish moves the ball well, ending up at the Miami 32-yard line with just one more play to go. From the snap, Harnish is pressured. He cuts inside, rolls left and...is hit as the throws, the ball falls no where near an NIU receiver. It's over.
Depressed, sick of reliving that 4th-and-20 play over and over in my head, but not being able to stop doing it, the train ride home the next morning was the longest four hours of my life.
I have yet to, nor have I had the urge to, go back to a MAC Championship Game.