It was Senior Night in DeKalb’s Huskie Stadium on Tuesday night, with the newly-minted MAC West champion Northern Illinois Huskies (8-4, 6-2 MAC) celebrating a last-to-first season for the ages. They would host the Western Michigan Broncos (7-5, 4-4 MAC), who were coming in to try and obtain postseason eligibility after a disappointing league season.
At the end of the proceedings on a cold, damp night in the farmland of Illinois, it would be the visiting Broncos who won out the day, riding an efficient offense and a pressure-filled defense to a 42-21 road victory.
It was NIU who sought to make a statement at the start of the game, with starting running back Jay Ducker breaking loose for a 47-yard run on the first play from scrimmage to get to the WMU 25-yard line. It ultimately didn’t count for much, however, as backup QB Ethan Hampton, starting in place of Rocky Lombardi, fumbled on an attempted rush, giving the ball back to the Broncos.
WMU sought to make a statement of their own on their first drive, taking the ball from their own 28-yard line and using up 11 plays over 72 yards to convert the turnover into a Brett Borske receiving touchdown from Kaleb Eleby from one yard out with 8:32 remaining in the first quarter to get the initial jump 7-0 over NIU.
Both teams would exchange two punts apiece on the next four possessions, with Nick Mihalic punting from the NIU 35-yard yard line to pin the Huskies at their four-yard line on the fourth punt to set up the next scoring play, a 96-yard fullback dive from “superback” Clint Ratkovich on the first play from scrimmage to tie the game right back up at 7-7 with 11:36 remaining in the first half.
The 96-yard run was the longest for NIU since 1934, when the five-foot-six, 155 lbs. Normalite HB Reino Nori, aka “The Flyin’ Finn”, rushed for a 99-yard touchdown against UW-Whitewater.
WMU struck back just over a minute later, with Eleby finding Skyy Moore for a 50-yard touchdown via the slant route to put the score back at 14-7 at the 10:19 mark in the game. On the ensuing kickoff, NIU upman Drew Cassens muffed a fair catch attempt, granting the Broncos another possession, which was turned into yet another Skyy Moore touchdown, this time from six yards to score on back-to-back possessions to go up 21-7.
They were almost gifted a third-straight possession when the ball touched NIU returner Messiah Travis for a muff. Travis eventually recovered it, but NIU couldn’t make anything of the possession, punting the ball away.
WMU would take the punt— and the commanding 28-7 lead with 1:25 to go into the half with another connection from Eleby to Moore, this time from 29 yards out.
The Broncos would finish off their 28-point unanswered streak with 10 seconds remaining in the third quarter, as Moore deked the defensive back on (you guessed it) a slant route to pick up his fourth touchdown of the day from 12 yards out to finish an eight-play, 55 yard drive lasting nearly five minutes.
After a 23-yard kickoff return by Mason Blakemore gave the Huskies the ball at the WMU 45-yard line, NIU once again found a big play via the run, with Antario Brown careening down the sidelines for a 44-yard score to put the margin at 35-14 WMU with 14:53 remaining.
Both teams would find the endzone on the next two possessions, with Sean Tyler scoring from 12 yards out for WMU and Brown rushig for a 41-yard touchdown to put the scoreboard at its eventual final score of 42-21.
Kaleb Eleby had one of his best performances of the season, finishing 21-of-26 for 355 yards and five touchdowns, with no interceptions. Backup QB Mareyohn Hrabowski also saw plenty of playing time in subpackages, with 10 carries for 77 yards, best for second on the team rushing charts.
Sean Tyler led all rushers with 115 yards on 17 attempts for a touchdown, with La’Darius Jefferson adding 72 yards on 10 carries to finish third in the rushing chart for WMU. Skyy Moore was the story of the day, with 12 receptions for 206 yards and four touchdowns on the day. Jaylen Hall and Cory Crooms each added 63 yards for the Broncos, while Borske had the game-opening touchdown.
Defensively, AJ Thomas led the Broncos with eight tackles, including a tackle-for-loss and two pass breakups. Ali Fayad picked up four tackles and a sack, putting him up to 11.5 sacks on the season with one game remaining in his distinguished career. Ryan Selig was utilitarian, with three tackles, a tackle-for-loss, a sack and a fumble recovery on the day.
NIU’s Ethan Hampton struggled in his first collegiate start in relief of Rocky Lombardi, who was held out for precautionary reasons, finishing 4-of-10 for 23 yards. Hampton didn’t reach the positives in passing yards until the third quarter, and sat at 1-of-3 for -4 yards at the half.
The Huskies kept almost exclusively to the run game, with Jay Ducker leading NIU with 13 rushes and 104 yards. Clint Ratkovich had three carries for one yard outside of his 96-yard scoring strike, while Antario Brown had two touchdowns on five carries, collecting 77 net yards. Miles Joiner had the most receiving yards on one 14-yard reception, with Trayvon Rudolph leading in receptions (2) for a total of 0 yards.
Itr was a busy day for the NIU defense, with two players reaching the double-digit tackles mark in CJ Brown (14 tackles) and JaVaughn Byrd (10 tackles, one pass breakup.) Byrd, Jashon Prophete and Jordan Gandy each picked up a pass breakup, while Michael Kennedy and Devonte O’Malley collected a sack apiece.
NIU will now await the winner of the Kent State/Miami game on Saturday for the MAC Championship Game tilt on Saturday, Dec.5, set to kick off noon Eastern time from Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan.
WMU, at 7-5, has their regular season end and will await a postseason bowl invitation for their next opponent.