After emerging victorious in Kalamazoo vs. Western Michigan, Northern Illinois clinched a fifth straight appearance to the MAC Championship Game in Detroit, MI at Ford Field. An amazing achievement no doubt. Only two other teams all time have been to consecutive conference championship games: Marshall, who played in six straight MAC title games from 1997-2002, and Florida, who was in five straight SEC title tilts from 1992-1996.
The team has risen from the ashes and found their way up to being the top dogs in the conference. NIU has seen it all in Detroit. Four straight previous title games makes for a bank of stories of how it all went down. The Huskies squared off with Bowling Green in last year's MACCG, only to come up empty handed in a game which some deemed the biggest MAC Championship bout in the conference's history. You can even dig deeper and find that NIU met with Akron in the very first year (2005) that the MAC title game was held at Ford Field in Detroit.
The championship games that NIU has been apart have supplied all types of games. This team has experienced the heartbreak of losing a conference champ. game, the elation of coming back from a deficit, as well as the ache of blowing leads in the final minutes.
Without further ado, here is the history of Northern Illinois is the MAC Championship Game at Ford Field.
2005: Akron 31, Northern Illinois 30
In the MACCG's first year at Ford Field, fans saw a thriller. Two teams found their way into the title game in Northern Illinois and Akron.
Coming into the clash, Northern was coached by Joe Novak, the man that installed belief into a program that was the nation's worst in the late 90's as Novak took over heading into the new decade. The Huskies were able to get into the Championship game thanks to a three game winning streak to finish out the regular season. This streak included a road win over Central Michigan, a home win over Western Michigan, and last but certainly not least, a victory of rivals and eventual MAC West runner-up Toledo at the Glass Bowl.
The game started with Akron jumping out to a 10 point brace, behind Dennis Kennedy's 3 yard TD run. Northern responded in the second quarter, leaning on stud running back Garrett Wolfe for a one yard score.
The game was tied at 10 at halftime. Then it looked like NIU was going to pull away with their first MAC title since 1983. Wolfe ran for his second score of the day to give the Huskies their first lead of the day. After an Akron fumble, QB Dan Nicholson was able to hook up with then future Dallas Cowboy WR Sam Hurd for a 19 yard score, Northern lead 24-10 entering the fourth quarter, seemingly with the game in hand.
That was when Akron started their comeback and NIU started their collapse.
The Zips opened up the fourth quarter with an 11 play, 80 yard drive that lead to a Brett Briggs rushing TD. NIU responded with a field goal on the following drive to gain breathing space, leading 27-17 with 10:43 remaining in the game.
Akron then came back with another touchdown with 7 minutes to go, pulling within three points. Northern managed to get another field goal on their next possession, leading 30-24 with 3 minutes to go in the game. It seemed like the title was NIU's when Phil Brown intercepted Akron QB Luke Getsy with just 2:10 on the clock, yet Akron was able to force NIU to a three-and-out and spend all three saved timeouts to get the ball back with one last chance and 1:41 left in the game.
That was when Northern's defense blew the game, as Getsy drove the length of the field, ultimately connecting with future NY Giant and Super Bowl Champion Domenik Hixon for a 36 yard score with just ten seconds remaining.
Garrett Wolfe did break a MACCG record with 270 rush yards on 42 carries, but it was Akron who got the MAC crown, and NIU left devastated.
2010: Miami 26, Northern Illinois 21
For Northern Illinois fans or just MAC fans in general, this game is sometimes referred to as the "Fourth and Twenty" game.
Miami came into the game without regular starting QB Zac Dysert, instead it was freshman Austin Boucher who took control of the offense. The RedHawks turned their ship around that year, coming off a 1-11 season and then flipping their results with an 8-4 regular season going 7-1 in conference play.
NIU went unbeaten in conference under coach Jerry Kill and were lead by Jr. Quarterback Chandler Harnish, who was becoming the face of MAC football. The Huskies also had a big time running back in Chad Spann. Also, one Jordan Lynch was just a mere freshman who's job was strictly to be a change of pace running QB.
Ranked 25th in the BCS and 24th in the AP Poll at the time, the Huskies came into the game with confidence and hopes of finally capturing that MAC Championship.
To start the contest Miami RB Thomas Merriweather struck first blood against the Huskies with a score, yet NIU managed to block the extra point attempt. Down 6-0 NIU took little time in striking back, as the Harnish found a young Martel Moore for a 69 yard touchdown pass, 7-6, Huskies.
The two sides traded blows once more, as Tracy Woods scored for Miami, then Harnish hooked up with Moore a second time from 27 yards out to give the Huskies a 14-13 advantage at the end of one quarter. A scoreless second quarter followed and it looked like Jerry Kill and his Huskies would stay the course en route to a win...
Yet right out of the gates Miami had another score from Thomas Merriweather giving them a 20-14 lead. That would not be a problem for the quick strike high powered offense that NIU boasted. At the start of the fourth quarter Harnish threw his third touchdown of the night to Willie Clark and Northern took back the lead, 21-20.
The score by Clark looked like it might hold up throughout the rest of the quarter, as the NIU defense was having their way with Austin Boucher and the Miami offense. In the end, the NIU secondary picked an awful time to blow it. Miami's last drive pitted them against a fourth down and 20 situation from their own 38 yard line after a sack on third down from NIU veterans Jake Coffman and Devon Butler.
Fourth down and twenty. It looked like NIU had sealed it.
Chris Givens caught a tipped ball for a 33 yard reception to save Miami's life on fourth down. Alan Baxter was able to sack Boucher on the following play, but NIU was drowned in heartbreak after Boucher threw to a wide open Armand Robinson to win the game with 33 seconds left, putting Miami in front 26-21.
NIU would atone for their blown game in the fourth quarter of the MACCG by crushing Fresno State in Boise in the Humanitarian Bowl, 40-17.
2011: Northern Illinois 23, Ohio 20
NIU thought about the agony of the past year's title fallout coming into the 2011 season. Under new boss Dave Doeren, the Huskies went 7-1 in conference and edged out Toledo for the MAC West division title. Chandler Harnish was back for his senior year that season, and he looked to leave his legacy on Ford Field against Ohio. Boy, did he ever.
Things got off to a nightmare start for Northern Illinois. Frank Solich's Bobcats pounced right from the get-go, gaining a ten point lead via a field goal and a wide-receiver trick pass play, which had Phil Bates throwing to Donte Foster for the score.
In the first half the NIU offense, known to be dynamic, was stifled and flat. The run game was not working, and three-and-outs were a common occurrence in the first two quarters for Chandler Harnish and co. Tommylee Lewis fumbled a kickoff return, leading to an Ohio field goal.
Then, things really were looking bleak when Ohio QB Tyler Tettleton scampered in on the ground for an 18 yard score. Ohio celebrated on their sidelines as they ran into the half with a 20-0 lead, while NIU was deflated searching for a way back in the final 30 minutes of the game.
NIU received the ball to start the second half but things just got worse. Jamison Wells fumbled what would have been a 17 yd catch for a first down. Ohio recovered and the Huskies were really up against it this time.
Finally, NIU found life when Nathan Palmer caught a 39 yard pass and spun his way into the end zone to put NIU on the board, trailing 20-7.
With less than 10 minutes in the game, NIU was still down by 13, but Harnish and the troops rallied, as Martel Moore caught a 32 yard score. The point after that followed proved to be a critical miss, as freshman kicker Matthew Sims could not convert, leaving Northern down 20-13.
The gravity of that missed extra point would really set in once NIU managed to tie the game with just 2:52 to go, as Nathan Palmer scored for his second touchdown catch of the game. Sims converted the extra point, yet his earlier miss prevented NIU from claiming the lead, score now tied 20-20.
With just 1:18 left in the game and one timeout left, it was up to Chandler Harnish to somehow jump over the final hurdle in NIU's long comeback from 20-0 down. The final drive started off brilliantly, as Perez Ashford caught a 27 yard pass getting down to Ohio's 37 yard line putting NIU in business. Two plays later, Martel Moore snatched a first down to the Ohio 19. Jas Hopkins ran to the 16 for a three yard gain on the following play, and NIU burned their final timeout to set up freshman Matt Sims for the game winning kick.
Ohio called their last two timeouts consecutively in order to try to ice Sims.
The freshman kicker made up for the extra point miss with a make from 33 yards out, sneaking his kick past the post as time expired, giving the Huskies their first MAC Championship since 1983. The boys in black went into delirium as they reached the mountain top from a 20 point hole.
Dave Doeren was able to win a MAC title in his first year as head coach, and Chandler Harnish and the senior class were able to go out on a high note, not only winning the title, but also defeating Arkansas State 38-23 in the GoDaddy.com Bowl.
2012: Northern Illinois 44, Kent State 37, 2OT
This was one of the wildest MACCG ever to happen. Kent State, ranked 17th in the BCS heading into Detroit practically only had to win the game and they would bust the BCS. Northern Illinois, ranked 21st in the BCS, came in with ideas not only of spoiling Kent State's BCS dreams, but making BCS dreams of their own.
NIU had a phenomenal year behind new signal caller Jordan Lynch, who broke nearly every record that Chandler Harnish held, which all seemed unbreakable. Both NIU and Kent State went undefeated in conference, but only one could be the king of the MAC that night.
Kent made the first dent in a long night of scoring through Dri Archer's 15 yard run that was set up via a muffed punt by A.J. Sebastiano. Kent State lead 10-3 after one.
NIU then took the driver's seat, leading after the half 17-10.
More of the same success on offense came for NIU in the third quarter, Jordan Lynch punched in his own score and a Matt Sims field goal gave a 14 point cushion to Northern heading into the final quarter.
Here is where the game got crazy. Kent State shocked everyone with a rally in the last five minutes. Spencer Keith was able to lead the Flashes on a 96 yard drive and run in from five yards for a score himself with 4:53 to go on the clock. Only needing to milk out the last four minutes or so, Jordan Lynch and NIU got the ball back, only to show signs of giving the game away. Lynch fumbled on a botched exchange between him and Akeem Daniels, and Zack Hitchens, a Kent State defensive end scooped and scored to tie the game at 27 just 15 seconds after the previous touchdown.
Lynch answered with his own 9 yard touchdown run with 3:12 left, but that gave Kent State another opportunity to tie, and they did. Tim Erjavec caught a 19 yard pass to tie the game with 44 seconds to go and the game went to OT.
Both teams traded field goals in the first OT. NIU saw Lynch run in for his third score on the ground for the game in the second OT. On Kent's next possession Keith was intercepted in the end zone by Demetrious Stone, and NIU was back on top for the second straight year.
In the game Lynch broke Denard Robinson's record for most rushing yards by a QB in a single season by gaining 1,771 on the year.
Dave Doeren would leave to take the HC position at NC State just days after it was confirmed that NIU made the Orange Bowl. Rod Carey was not only named caretaker for the Orange Bowl, but also the head coach moving forward.
The Kent State BCS hopes deflated with NIU's win, yet with the right dominoes falling, NIU found themselves as the 2012 BCS Busters. Teams in front of NIU that lost were UCLA, Texas, and Nebraska. In the end, NIU went to the Orange Bowl representing the MAC, falling to Florida State 31-10.
2013: Bowling Green 47, Northern Illinois 27
Everything was set up perfect. Fresno State lost the week beforehand, allowing NIU to jump them as the top mid-major in the BCS rankings heading into the MACCG. Jordan Lynch had a big stage to bolster his Heisman Trophy campaign further. It was all on a silver platter.
All the Huskies had to do was win the game.
For NIU fans, this had to be one of the most dejecting experiences. Personally, I remember going to bed and having this terrible feeling of emptiness. Ranked 14th in the BCS, all NIU had to do was win the MACCG vs. Bowling Green and they would be crashing the BCS for the second straight year. A trip to the Fiesta Bowl was on everyone's mind. Some called this the biggest game in MACCG history. Had NIU won, the recognition and pay day for the MAC would have been ginormous. Bowling Green was an electric opponent to be reckoned with, and it all made for an incredible match-up.
It was Bowling Green who showed up to play in the MACCG last season, and NIU didn't. Sporting the new 'Dark Dog' uniforms under the crystal clear lights of Ford Field, NIU was trounced by a Bowling Green side that flat out kicked their tail that night. Young BGSU QB Matt Johnson put together the game of his life, throwing for 393 yards and 5 touchdowns, torching an NIU secondary that looked helpless all night long.
NIU found themselves down 31-13 at half, hopes of a comeback brightened when Jordan Lynch ran for a score to make it 31-20 early in the third quarter. Yet the NIU defense had no answer for the Falcons' offensive attack which kept on scoring and eventually won by 20.
The end result was a disappointing end to a dream season for NIU. The team went undefeated before the title game, including a road win over an Iowa team which would win 8 games that year. Rod Carey did a great job in his first full year as the coach, but the title game loss stings for the NIU faithful to this day.
NIU gets a shot at revenge against Bowling Green yet again this season. We will see what the Huskies do with it come Friday Night. NIU's seniors have a chance to tie last season's class as the winningest in school history. A win in the Championship Game would give the class of 2014 a record of 46-9, which would match the win total of the 2013 classes' record of 46-10.
Since 2005, NIU is 2-3 in MAC Championship games and can reach .500 with a win this year. What better team to do it against than the one that spoiled everything for you a year ago?