It’s one of the MAC’s most storied competitive rivalries, so of course, this tussle between the Northern Illinois Huskies (4-2, 2-0 MAC) and Toledo Rockets (3-3, 1-1 MAC) could only end one way: The Hard Way.
It was John Richardson’s program-record performance that would define the final tally, as he sailed through a 29-yard field goal try true to cap off a nine-play, 60-yard NIU drive which took 3:02 off the clock to give the young Huskies the 22-20 lead, which would ultimately hold up when the clock struck triple zeroes.
The Huskies struck first blood, with Richardson’s first field goal at the 10:33 mark of the first quarter from 43 yards out to cap an 11-play, 50 yard drive and take a 3-0 lead.
Toledo tried to get one over on the Huskies on their first drive after digging themselves into an early hole with a delay of game penalty on their first play from scrimmage, going for it on fourth-and-two from their own 45-yard line, but failing to convert as the Carter Bradley pass to Bryce Mitchell fell incomplete.
After a nine-play, 34 yard drive to get to the Toledo six-yard line, Richardson was once again trotted out for NIU, but the attempt was no good from 23 yards out, giving Toledo another opportunity to score.
Instead, Toledo punted after a three-and-out on their next possession, and NIU QB Rocky Lombardi would loft an interception in the direction of Toledo’s Chris McDonald to essentially end the first quarter of play.
NIU would hit paydirt once again on their ensuing possession, taking up 72 yards on 13 plays in over seven minutes to set up Richardson’s third field-goal attempt in as many visits to Toledo territory, this time from 26 yards out to put the score at 6-0.
The action got hot and heavy from there, with Dequan Finn entering the game and hooking up with Matt Landers for a 21-yard reception and finding Bryce Mitchell deep downfield to draw a penalty on NIU defender Jordan Gandy to move from their own 25 to the NIU 40, where RB Bryant Koback would house a touchdown on the very next play to give the Rockets a vital 7-6 lead with 4:45 remaining in the half.
It took NIU only 2:10 to score again, with Richardson striking the ball yet again for a 43-yard field goal to go up 9-7 on a drive aided by a defensive penalty for a personal foul after a 17-yard Lombardi scramble. Toledo took just 20 second to answer in kind, with Bryant Koback collecting 75 yards on a screen pass from Dequan Finn to reclaim a 14-9 lead with 2:25 remaining in the half.
NIU finally found their first touchdown of the day on their last possession of the first half, taking just six plays and 1:49 to get RB Antario Brown in position for a 37-yard run to put NIU back up top once again at 16-14, which is how the half would end, scoring-wise.
It was a back-and-forth defensive affair from there, with Toledo once again electing to go for it on the first possession of the second half, with Dequan Finn failing to connect with Bryce Mitchell on a fourth-and-8 situation from the NIU 38.
The Rockets would continue to be frustrated on their next possession, with Thomas Cluckey missing from 38 yards out to waste the potential of a six-play, 26-yard drive which ended at NIU’s 30.
Even after forcing a quick three-and-out and another NIU punt to end a torturous 12-play, 20-yard drive which lasted over six minutes on defense, Toledo could not move the ball effectively. The Rockets collected zero points from both stops, with one seven-play, 20-yard drive ending in a punt, and another five-play, 33-yard drive ending in yet another failed fourth-down conversion, this time on fourth-and-6 from the NIU 34.
The Huskies went back on ball control after holding up strong defensively in the second half, taking up over five minutes on 10 plays to move 35 yards to set up (you guessed it!) a John Richardson field goal from 47 yards out to put NIU up 19-14 with just over six minutes remaining.
Toledo came out with a bang two plays after retaining the ball, with a 46-yard strike from Finn to TE Drew Rosi to put the Rockets at the NIU 24. What looked to be a touchdown for Jerjuan Newton two plays after that was nullified due to holding, but it mattered not, as after forcing NIU to commit pass interference on fourth-and-12, Devin Maddox ran in for an 11-yard touchdown to put the score at 20-19 in favor of Toledo. The two-point attempt by Maddox, also a rush, was no good, meaning any NIU score would win the game.
It was a slow, methodical drive once again for NIU, as they seemed content to run down the clock until forced into a passing situation. A golden opportunity came on second-and-six, as Toledo DB Samuel Womack pushed NIU WR Messiah Taylor out of the play to draw a pass interference flag. From the Toledo 41 on the new set of downs, NIU threw up a shot play in the direction of Tyrice Richie, who took the ball 34 yards to set up the Huskies inside the redzone.
John Richardson would kick the game-winner true to end the drive, and Toledo slipped up on the comeback attempt, committing a false start on the first play of the drive, and downing the ball in the middle of the field with no timeouts at their own 30. A madcaps attempt at a hook-and-lateral play would ultimately go for naught with three seconds remaining, and NIU would walk away with the victory on the road, taking sole possession of the MAC West divisional lead due to the results of the other games.
Rocky Lombardi was the winning QB on the day for NIU, completing 14-of-24 passes for 154 yards, throwing one interception. He also contributed 90 rushing yards on 12 rushing attempts, second-most on the team.
Antario Brown was the lone Huskie to score a touchdown on the day, with 97 yards on 24 carries. Jay Ducker also contributed to the running attack with 11 carries for 50 yards. Tyrice Richie’s 98 yards on eight receptions topped the Huskie receiving charts.
NIU safety CJ Brown led all NIU tacklers, with eight on the day, to pair with .5 tackle-for-loss and a QB hit. DB Jordan Gandy and LB Jordan Hansen both brought in five tackles and a tackle-for-loss, while DB Myles McGee contrinuted a pass break-up.
For the Rockets, Dequan Finn effectively replaced Carter Bradley midway through the second quarter, finishing 10-of-17 for 286 yards and two touchdowns, with no interceptions, as well as 25 rushing yards on six carries. Bradley went 6-of-14 for 50 yards in his drives.
Bryant Koback once again shone bright for Toledo, with 91 yards on 12 carries and an additional 85 yards on two receptions, totaling two touchdowns on the day, both in the second quarter. Devin Maddox drew the most attention at receiver, with five receptions for 34 yards and a touchdown.
Toledo LB Dyontae Johnson and safety Maxen Hook led all tacklers with 13 tackles apiece, with the duo combining for 1.5 tackles-for-loss. Jonathan Jones (12 tackles, one tackle-for-loss, one forced fumble, one pass break-up), Desjuan Johnson (11 tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss, one QB hit) and Jamal Hines (10 tackles, 1.5 tackles-for-loss, one sack) all hit double-digits in tackles for the Rockets. Chris McDonald pulled in the game’s lone interception.
John Richardson went 5-of-6 on the day, with makes from 26, 29 and 47 yards out, as well as two makes from 43 yards, only missing from 23 yards early on. Richardson’s performance re-wrote the record books, becoming the first NIU kicker since Christian Hagan in 2015 to kick four or more field goals, joining Vince Scott (1982 vs. Ohio) and Chris Nendick (2006 vs. Temple) as the only NIU kickers to hit five field goals in a single game.
His Toledo peer Thomas Cluckey missed on his only attempt of the day from 48 yards out, converting both point after attempts.
NIU looks to move to 3-0 against Bowling Green on the familiar turf of Huskie Stadium next Saturday at 3:30 p.m. Eastern, while Toledo will travel to Mt. Pleasant to take on Central Michigan. Kickoff for that game is also set for next Saturday at 3:30 p.m. Eastern.