With just under five seconds remaining in the festivities, QB Daniel Richardson and the rest of the CMU offense trotted off the field, assured they had secured a victory in front of the home fans. They had set up a field goal at the NIU 22-yard line to let 2020 first-team all-MAC kicker Marshall Meeder kick a game-winning attempt from 40 yards out.
But it wasn’t meant to be, as the low snap slipped past the holder and skittered 20 yards backwards to essentially end the contest, securing the NIU Huskies (6-2, 4-0 MAC) a 39-38 win over the hosting Central Michigan Chippewas (4-4, 2-2 MAC) to ensure their grip on the MAC West divisional race.
It was a hellacious comeback for the Huskies, bridging gaps of 28-10 (4:59 2Q) and 35-18 (9:53 3Q) to mount pressure on the Chippewas and force them to take an uneasy victory in unfavorable circumstances. The result was NIU’s fourth-straight win by a score or less, and this one was perhaps one of their more unexpected, as they had to mount drives through the air in order to score, as opposed to grabbing a big lead via the run game and holding on late.
It certainly didn’t look good for the Huskies early, as they gave up a 66-yard Lew Nichols III run just 1:12 into the festivities to go down 7-0. They would answer the quick drive back with one of several of their five-plus minute drives, converting on a 21-yard touchdown pass from Rocky Lombardi to Tyrice Richie to put the tally at 7-7.
CMU went back to the hot-handed Nichols once again on the next drive, pushing the Chips up to a 14-7 lead, with NIU responding with the first career field goal from the foot of freshman kicker Kannon Woodill, who was playing in place of John Richardson (undisclosed), to close off another long drive lasting nearly five minutes.
Three plays from scrimmage later, Daniel Richardson found a streaking Kalil Pimpleton down the sideline for a 72-yard touchdown strike to give CMU a fairly sizeable 21-10 lead, and the Chippewas would tack on another passing touchdown from Richardson to JaCorey Sullivan after forcing a Huskies punt to give CMU a 28-10 margin with under five minutes remaining in the first half.
The Huskies didn’t give up, stunning CMU by grabbing a fourth-down conversion and eventually turning it into a Trayvon Rudolph receiving touchdown from 15 yards out. NIU surprised the Chippewas defense on the ensuing point-after attempt, with Tristian Tewes hauling in a wide receiver pass on a fake jet sweep look to put the scoreboard at 28-18 with :33 remaining in the half.
The CMU offense charged down the field, with Lew Nichols picking up 32 total yards to set up the Chips in positive territory at the NIU 45 to move the sticks and stop the clock.With no timeouts, and on a play which was meant to be a spike to set up a potential scoring play, Daniel Richardson knelt instead, ending the half at 28-18 in CMU’s favor.
The Chippewas would make up for it on their first possession of the second half after forcing NIU to fail on a fourth-down conversion in theirs, with Joel Wilson hauling in a four-yard touchdown on the flats on fourth-and-goal to push the total to 35-18 at the 9:53 mark of the third quarter.
The rally would start there for the Huskies, with Rocky Lombardi damning the torpedoes on a 75-yard touchdown pass on the first play from scrimmage to Trayvon Rudolph, and Miles Joiner would pick up a two-point conversion to make it a nine-point gap. After forcing a three-and-out on defense, NIU drove down the field on a 14-play, 50-yard drive lasting 7:19 in game time, Kannon Woodil scored his second field goal of the day from 24 yards out to bring it within a score at 35-29 CMU advantage.
After another quick drive ending in a punt, NIU found paydirt on a Clint Ratkovich one-yard run set up by a 50-yard Tyrice Richie reception on broken coverage to give NIU their first advantage of the day at 36-35 with 10:47 remaining.
CMU responded with a long drive of their own in an attempt to get the lead back, with a promising drive stalled out at the NIU 19 after two runs for no gain up the middle and a miscommunication on an endzone reception meant for Kalil Pimpleton. Marshall Meeder kicked through a 38-yard attempt, and CMU took the lead back at 38-36 with 6:01 remaining.
NIU had to drive down the field to have a chance of winning the game, and looked to be in a bad way with fourth-and-one at midfield with 2:31 remaining. NIU elected to call timeout and consider the play, ultimately deciding on a fake speed option left, instead tossing on the jet reverse right to Trayvon Rudolph, who gained seven yards to extend the drive. After RB Jay Ducker gashed the CMU defense for 35 yards on three plays to bleed CMU’s timeouts, Kannon Woodil kicked the ball through four plays later from 26 yards out to put the score at 39-38.
The timeouts saved CMU about 55 seconds, and the Chippewas came out guns blazing, with Daniel Richardson connecting on passes from 15 yards, 12 yards, 22 yards and three yards out to set up CMU with favorable field position to end the game on a field goal attempt.
The attempt never had a chance due to the botched snap, and with just five seconds left on the clock, NIU’s Rocky Lombardi kneeled, celebrating with his teammates in front of a stunned crowd.
It was Central’s second-straight game where they gave up a three-score lead in the second half, and the tale of conversion rates and time of possession tells the tale. NIU won the time of possession battle with a dominating 36 minutes to CMU’s 23, while NIU converted on 4-of-5 fourth-down attempts and 2-of-2 on two-point conversions as well.
For the triumphant Huskies, Lombardi finished 16-of-26 for 320 yards and three touchdowns, a week removed from a four-completion, 38-yard effort. Opposing receivers once again found success against CMU’s secondary as well, with both Richie (eight receptions, 147 yards, one touchdown) and Rudolph (six receptions, 160 yards, two touchdowns) eating their assignments. Jay Ducker led the rushing effort with 31 rushes for 183 yards, while Ratkovich scored the lone rushing touchdown on a six-carry effort.
CJ Brown led the day defensively for the Huskies, with eight total tackles, while Mekhi Nelson-Douglas racked up two tackles-for-loss and Dillon Thomas and Demond Taylor each had a pass break-up.
For CMU, Daniel Richardson finished 23-of-36 for 383 yards and three touchdowns on the day. Lew Nichols III paced the rushing offense with 22 rushes for 192 yards and two touchdowns. Kalil Pimpleton (six receptions, 130 yards, one touchdown) led CMU’s receivers and was also 3-of-3 for 18 yards through the air. JaCorey Sullivan (six receptions, 63 yards) and Lew Nichols (six receptions, 42 yards) also topped the table offensively. Joel Wilson (three receptions, 16 yards) had the third and final touchdown through the air.
Defensively, Devonni Reed led all tacklers with 15 total tackles and .5 tackles-for-loss, while Gage Kreski (nine tackles, one sack, one tackle-for-loss) and Troy Hairston (seven tackles, one sack, two tackles-for-loss) were also major contributors. Donte Kent, Alonzo McCoy and Rollian Sturkey each defended a pass.
NIU controls their own destiny moving forward, and seek to continue their undefeated league streak against Kent State in a cross-division matchup on Nov. 3 at 7 p.m. Eastern. CMU will look to rebound after their bye week against blood rival Western Michigan on the road, also on Nov. 3 at 7 p.m. Eastern.