Northern Illinois and Eastern Michigan entered DeKalb on Thursday night as similar programs. The two MAC West opponents were proud owners of the top two defenses entering the matchup. Both teams have also been involved in a series of close games this year, suffering close heartbreaking losses. But the stark contrast between the teams is their records. NIU entered 6-2 and Eastern Michigan entered 2-6.
But the disparity in the records would increase as Northern Illinois utilized a quick fourth quarter comeback to defeat Eastern Michigan 30-27 in overtime. The Huskies never led in the second half until Marcus Jones scampered into the end zone from nine yards out to preserve NIU's undefeated MAC record.
With the best defenses the conference has to offer participating, there were plenty of third down stops and punts in the early going. The two teams combined 8-of-36 on third downs, forcing 21 punts in the contest.
But offensively, Northern Illinois struck gold first. At the beginning of the second quarter, quarterback Marcus Childers hit wide receiver D.J. Brown on a slant pattern and Brown sprinted 69 yards to the end zone to go up 7-0 at home.
On the very next offensive play, Eastern Michigan returned the favor. In a play that almost mirrored Brown's touchdown, Brogan Roback found Sergio Bailey for a 68-yard touchdown down the center of the field. Bailey had several steps on former All-American cornerback Shawun Lurry and tied the game at 7 apiece.
But the the following touchdown wouldn't be scored by an offense. Backed up against their own end zone, the Huskies' were forced to punt it away. But their spread out blocking scheme didn't work according to plan, and Eastern Michigan exposed it and managed to reject Matt Ference's punt. The Eagles recovered the ball in the end zone to lead 14-7.
On their opportunity to extend the lead to double digits, Chris Creighton's team drove right down Huskie Stadium's field but Paulie Fricano's 50-yard field goal attempt would fly wide left. The players headed to the locker rooms for halftime shortly after, and at that point, the kicking game's negative impact on Eastern Michigan was just starting to boil.
Northern Illinois opened the second half with an long, 10-play possession that reached as far as Eastern Michigan's 10-yard line. But by the goal line, Eastern Michigan halted the run game, and NIU kicker Christian Hagan was called upon to drain a 25-yard field goal. Hagan improved to .500 (6-of-12) on the year by nailing the chip shot attempt.
Eastern Michigan once again immersed itself deep into Huskie territory after an impressive pass by Roback on a 3rd-and-8, a 40-yard lob down the right sideline. Once reaching the red zone, the Huskies' elite defense stepped up to the task and outside linebacker Jawuan Johnson sacked Roback on third down. Fricano earned an opportunity at redemption but his 36-yarder was blocked by the Huskies' intimidating defensive front.
Northern Illinois, in hopes of gaining offensive momentum after the block, recorded two first downs in two plays. But all of the momentum was shattered when receiver Christian Blake fumbled the ball in NIU territory after a 14 yard catch-and-run. Eastern Michigan recovered and would convert on a 34-yard field goal to lead 17-10.
In the following sequence, things were finally looking bright for Eastern Michigan. Childers' pass attempt on 4th-and-4 in Eastern Michigan territory was tipped and fell incomplete. And at the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Eagles pulled off a bizarre trick play. The play brought back memories of the Tennessee Titans' Music City Miracle, with Brogan Roback playing the role of Frank Wycheck and wide receiver Isaac Holder acting as Kevin Dyson.
After catching the lateral from Roback, Holder flung the ball into the end zone to the wide open tight end Bryce Kemp. The play was initially called an illegal forward pass but the referees overturned the play after reviewing it for several minutes in the booth. The trick play gave the Eagles' breathing room, leading 24-10 with under a 15 minutes of action to go.
The two teams both forced punts before Northern Illinois would drive 74 yards in just two minutes thanks to the hands of tight end Shane Wimann. Wimann caught a 50-yard pass on the first play of the possession and finished the drive with a route across the middle, scoring a five-yard touchdown on 3rd-and-goal. The rejuvenated Huskies were within seven at their home base.
The Eagles, who are accustomed to keeping things close and interesting, would go three-and-out three times in a row, giving golden opportunities to the surging Huskies. As a result of a game-changing blocked punt, NIU took over with perfect field position from the 10-yard line. Two plays later, Childers unleashed his inner Jordan Lynch by juking out a linebacker and dashing into the end zone for six, much to the crowd's approval. Hagan's extra point tied the game, 24-24.
But Roback and the Eagles weren't ready to give up. Roback connected with Bailey on a key 21-yard reception to keep the offense flowing, and the Eagles entered field goal range. Fricano, who has a career high of 46, needed a 42-yarder to win it for his team.
With no icing because the Huskies lacked timeouts, Fricano booted the ball as soon as the play was set up. Initially, the field goal looked perfect, but it hooked just left of the upright at the last instant. Fricano fell to 1-of-4 on field goals, matching his previous season total of misses (three) in just one game.
We were granted free football on Thursday night #MACtion, but overtime hasn't been friendly to the Eagles this season, who lost 27-20 to Ohio in Week 4 and 20-17 to Western Michigan (on a missed game-tying field goal) last Saturday. This would be the third overtime devastation for Creighton and Co.
After the offense failed to convert on 3rd-and-2, Fricano took the field once more. This time, the sophomore kicker delivered and provided the Eagles a 27-24 advantage.
But Northern Illinois' offense, fresh off of a game-tying drive, gathered all the momentum at home. Childers threw a first down to Brown, and then Marcus Jones would finish the job on the ground.
Jones ran it nine yards into the end zone for a walk-off touchdown on the third play of the drive, launching the Huskies into bowl eligibility for the ninth time in 10 seasons. It was an important win for Northern Illinois, which unveiled a statue of their former live mascot Diesel (the high-fiving husky) outside Huskie Stadium prior to the contest.
Meanwhile, Eastern Michigan is one loss away from missing a bowl. One year after finishing the regular season 7-5, the Eagles fall to 2-6 with three overtime losses, a point differential of -3, and no losses in regulation greater than five points. We have every Eastern Michigan heartbreak chronicled right here.
Both quarterbacks, Roback and Childers, posted similar numbers. They weren't the most accurate over the course of the night but avoided interceptions and kept the offenses alive in a primarily defensive battle.
But NIU's star player, Sutton Smith, came to play once again. Entering as the nation's third-place sack leader, Smith added one more to his name — a key third down stop that knocked the Eagles away from field goal range early on. Smith also provided lots of pressure on Roback and recorded three tackles for loss in the victory.
This game would be one Fricano would like to put in the past. He officially finished 2-of-5 on field goals, failing to add points to the end of long Eastern Michigan drives. The Eagles' offense also struggled once reaching Northern Illinois territory and constantly had to call No. 18's name for scoring opportunities. The Huskies have been phenomenal at pressuring quarterbacks, halting the run, and stopping third down conversions all year — and Thursday night was no exception.
Eastern Michigan (2-6, 0-4) will look to get back on track and avoid a seventh down-to-the-wire loss against the struggling Ball State Cardinals next week.
Northern Illinois (6-2, 4-0) already surpassed its 2016 win total and likely punched a ticket to the postseason. The team's next goal will be upsetting Toledo on the road next Thursday night to gain sole possession of first place in the competitive MAC West.