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Northern Illinois Outlasts a Surging Eastern Illinois to Win 43-39

Our Game of The Week turned out to be one of the games of the year as NIU held off a surging Eastern Illinois offense in a barn burner that went down to the wire.

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

#MACtion is all about high octane close matchups, and Saturday night that's exactly what Eastern Illinois (3-1) and Northern Illinois (3-0) gave us. The game went right down to the final seconds as both teams high powered offenses traded blows back and forth all night.

The Northern Illinois Huskies trailed EIU 20-0 less than seven minutes into the game as Panthers' quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo threw for three scores in a four and a half minute span. But not to be outdone the Huskies, led by Jordan Lynch and a stud performance by running back Cameron Stingily scratched and clawed their way back into it, heading into halftime with a 23-20 lead.

That's how it went. Both teams striking back and forth, right up to the final minutes. In a game that featured a combined 1,179 total yards of offense, two of college football's most electrifying quarterbacks turned in performances that should be remembered for sometime.

Garoppolo entered the game fresh off of a seven touchdown performance against Illinois State a week ago, and followed it up with easily the greatest performance in his career. At the start of the game the senior quarterback trailed EIU alumnus Tony Romo by six touchdowns for the school's career touchdown record, by the end of the night Garoppolo had moved into a tie with the current Dallas Cowboys star quarterback.

Not to be intimidated by Northern Illinois' Orange Bowl appearance, or the sellout crowd at Huskie Stadium, the Panthers and Garoppolo came out swinging. Two minutes into the game he capped off a 9-play, 75-yard drive on a 14-yard touchdown pass to reigning Ohio Valley Conference Player of The Year, wide receiver Erik Lora to take the early 6-0 lead. With an aggressive game plan in mind EIU attempted a two-point conversion but failed. But then the Panthers stunned NIU with an onside kick, which EIU recovered, and followed up with another Garoppolo touchdown pass 30 seconds later.

Before the Huskies knew what happened they found themselves down 20-0 with their nations-best 21-game home winning streak on the line after just one offensive possession.

Heisman hopeful Jordan Lynch struggled to do much off the bat, but was bailed out by a surprise performance from junior running back Cameron Stingily. The bulldozer of a back scored the Huskies first touchdown run with 5:17 left in the first, and followed it up with another score one minute into the second quarter. Suddenly with Stingily rumbling behind the MAC's best offensive line, Lynch and the Huskies were in control.

The NIU defense picked off Garoppolo near the end of the first quarter, and sacked him twice on one drive in the second. The pressure forced the Panthers defense to stale and gave Northern Illinois the opportunity to build some momentum. By halftime the Huskies had rattled off 23 unanswered points and a 3-point lead.

Lynch, who finished the game with 235 yards and a touchdown on 21-of-30 passing, threw one of his two interceptions on the game at the beginning of the second half, but Jimmie Ward stole the ball back three plays later when he picked off Garoppolo at the Northern Illinois six-yard line. Lynch executed an eight play, 79-yard drive in just under three minutes to give NIU a 10 point lead and 30 unanswered points.

vs E. Illinois / 9.21.13 Passing Rushing
Comp Att Pct Yds TD Rush Yds Avg TD
Jordan Lynch 21 30 70.0 235 1 23 189 8.2 0

But the lead, and momentum was short lived as the Panthers refused to give up. Garoppolo one-uped Lynch, capping off a nine play, 91-yard drive on a 33-yard bomb to Lora, who finished the game with an eye-popping 14 catches for 198 yards and three touchdown receptions. The TD pass cut NIU's lead to just four, after another failed two-point conversion. Matthew Sims tacked on a field goal to give NIU a seven-point lead to close out the third quarter.

But five seconds into the fourth quarter Garoppolo, who finished the game with 450 yards and six touchdowns on 34-of-49 passing, evened the game up at  33-33, and that's when the real fun began.

Despite Lynch rushing for 189 yards on the night, EIU's defense was able to keep him from finding the endzone on the ground, and forced the Huskies to settle for another Sims field goal. With just under 10 minutes left in the game Garoppolo struck again, finding Lora for a third time and stunning the Huskies' crowd as the Panthers took a 39-36 lead.

NIU was in danger. The defense had no answer for one of college football's most dangerous quarterback's, and were starring down the barrel of an upset and the end to the nations longest home winning streak. But great teams don't just win when it's easy, they shine brightest when under immense pressure, like a diamond on the gridiron, and that's exactly what the Huskies' offense did.

With the duo of Stingily and Keith Harris (the pair finished the game with two touchdowns apiece) working in tandem behind Lynch and an offensive line that kept the quarterback upright all night, Northern Illinois was able to regain the lead on an eight yard run by Harris with 8:30 left. It was the final score of the game and gave NIU the 43-39 lead.

vs E. Illinois / 9.21.13 Rushing Receiving
Rush Yards Avg TD Rec Yards Avg TD
Cameron Stingily 21 134 6.4 2 1 9 9 0

Refusing to go down quietly Garoppolo and the Panthers mounted a final charge, but were plagued by penalties and were forced to punt with barely over five minutes left. Eastern Illinois never got another shot as the Huskies ran the final five minutes off the clock behind a power running game that totaled 367 rushing yards on the evening.

With the victory the Northern Illinois increased its home winning streak to 22 games, but also showed heart that few teams in the country have. Despite EIU's FCS status, the Panthers proved they were a serious threat (just ask San Diego State who fell to them 40-19 in the season opener) heading into the game and all throughout, and even when trailing early, the Huskies persevered and out dueled arguably the best quarterback they will see all year.

While Jordan Lynch wasn't at his best, the team stepped up behind him, showing a level of depth and all around production that was lacking at times last year. They also turned out one of the greatest games college football has offered this season, and did it all quietly from their home in DeKalb, away from national television.

It wasn't always the prettiest game (the teams combined for 28 penalties for a total of 245 yards) but it didn't lack in excitement, or style as NIU pulled out an impressive victory that should offer the team help in its quest to once again crack the AP Top 25 Poll.

Heading into a conference season that features numerous matchups easier than this one, NIU showed it has the all around fire power, and the guts to once again sprint its way through the MAC and remain top dog in the conference.