This was not the ugliest game Northern Illinois has ever played. They began the program in the 19th century, and my grandparents weren't even alive then. So I can't say for sure, but in my blogger short-term memory this was the ugliest game Northern played. And they won it. I watched the game and couldn't tell you exactly how it came to be.
The best parallel I can put to this was when Henry Rowengartner lost his fastball at the end of Rookie of the Year and wound up helping the Cubs win a World Series nonetheless. But that's not a great example because the Chicago Cubs are more like the Ohio Bobcats, the last remaining founding member of the MAC who also have a dreadfully long 43-years-and-counting drought of winning the Mid-American Conference Football Championship.
|Final - 12.2.2011||1||2||3||4||Total|
|Northern Illinois Huskies||0||0||7||16||23|
The Huskies are more like the Atlanta Braves, at least as of recently: they've had several wins but just couldn't push through to the title. They won bowl games, they had Vern Smith winners, but that last game always caught up to them. And that appeared to be what happened in the first half when Chandler Harnish and company was responsible for three turnovers. They had a fourth turnover early in the second half, making it the first time in four years that they had more than three giveaways in a game. They lost 35-10 to CMU in 2007 when they turned it over six times.
They also became depleted on their defensive line when leading tackles-for-loss man Ron Newcomb exited in the first half with an injury, only to resurface on the sideline with crutches. Frank Boenzi went down later, completely thinning their interior line down to two men.
They didn't have much going on the ground, either. Jasmin Hopkins burst for a couple neat runs, but just 4.3 yards per rush (and 31 on 13 carries for Harnish) was below their season average of 5.85. Credit goes to the Bobcats defense for not allowing the ball carrier to advance past first contact.
Meanwhile Tyler Tettleton was finding LaVon Brazill open in every way possible. He made a one-handed grab on a crossing route that probably jumped you off your couch. His NFL stock rose like a soufflé. Even Philip Bates, the Wildcat quarterback who finally converted to receiver once he didn't earn the starting job, found Donte Foster on a double-reverse pass. Noah Keller was making direct beelines to Harnish on almost every play. Everything was coming up Rufus.
When the game was 20-0, I was looking at NIU and remembered all those points they scored. 63 at Toledo. 51 against WMU. 45 against Bowling Green. These were decent defenses. But there was a demeanor about the team that didn't indicate that they were going to break out of the funk.
And then Harnish finally found the MAC Championship Game MVP Nathan Palmer for a 39-yard touchdown that ... well, didn't really look like a touchdown. Replays couldn't overturn the play, but NaPalm made a great stretch regardless, so they gave it to him. A 20-point lead became 13, which is much less daunting.
And despite the substandard defense in the first half, NIU clamped down and allowed just 74 second-half yards , or 13 yards fewer than was accrued on their last scoring drive. They forced punts. They got back in the game. And it took 28 years — some of those so desolate they tried to actualize a mid-life crisfgis in the Big West Conference — but the MAC Championship finally returned to DeKalb.
As for the Bobcats ... well, nothing hurts more than a lost championship, especially in the final minute. I wanted to retch when the Falcons lost to OHIO in the final seconds of a regular season game. I'm not sure what number you multiply that numbing pain with, but you might be able to multiply it by zero knowing the Bobcats' outlook: Tettleton comes back for his fourth year in the system and they open up at Penn State (assuming they still have a football program by then). And yes, they'll get a bowl game in an attempt to finish the season with a rockin' encore.
But for the team that nearly lost Devon Butler to a senseless shooting death in the offseason, Northern Illinois is finally the champions. And they did it without their fastball.
What a fun season. Bowls are upcoming — and bids are impending — but they are essentially bonus rounds in the video game that is MAC football. What a blast. Good thing MAC basketball is riding a tidal wave of upsets right now — this'll keep us busy until springtime.