For the first 59 minutes and 58 seconds of clock, the 2021 Cure Bowl was everything a bowl game could dream of. The showcase in Boca Raton featured 88 combined points, seven lead changes, a total of 1,030 yards of offense, and a down-to-the-wire finish. However, the ending was not without controversy.
Trailing 47-41 with seven seconds remaining, Northern Illinois faced a 3rd and 1 from the Coastal Carolina 8-yard line. The Huskies already exhausted all three timeouts. Instead of electing to target the end zone, Northern Illinois focused on converting the first down and inching closer toward the goal line. Quarterback Rocky Lombardi fired an out route to tight end Miles Joiner toward the left sideline.
While it was unclear if Joiner completed the process of the catch, the referees ruled it an inbounds reception and a first down, signifying a brief clock stoppage with two seconds remaining. Northern Illinois quickly lined up in position for a final snap prior to the ref’s placement of the ball. However, the referee did not move out of the center’s way nor blow the whistle to allow the Huskies to snap it, prior to the clock hitting triple zeros. The Coastal Carolina sideline then populated the field to celebrate the Chanticleers’ first-ever bowl victory as a conclusion to the thrilling shootout.
the ending to Northern Illinois vs Coastal Carolina ...— The Transfer Portal CFB (@TPortalCFB) December 18, 2021
Wow... Pretty Awful way to end it. Feel for all the NIU kids pic.twitter.com/QDGt1QdZUv
MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher released a statement regarding the controversial finish, which cost Northern Illinois a shot at its first bowl victory since 2011:
At the end of last night’s NIU vs. Coastal Carolina football game in Orlando, a series of errors by the on-field officials and the replay official denied NIU the opportunity to run one more play. Following the reception along the sideline, the play should have been stopped for a review. Also, the clock was not managed appropriately on what should have been the final play as the center judge should have been allowed to clear the center before the referee wound the clock. This should not have occurred and the egregious errors around a potential game-changing situation is both unfortunate and unacceptable.
Congratulations to the student-athletes and coaches at NIU and Coastal Carolina for tremendous seasons and a hard-fought bowl game.
Northern Illinois finished its season with a 9-5 record, a stark improvement from its 0-6 résumé in the 2020 pandemic-shortened season. In a special season for the Huskies, they claimed their fifth MAC championship since 2011 and their first under third-year head coach Thomas Hammock.