The Northern Illinois Huskies (3-4, 2-1 MAC) knocked the Ohio Bobcats (5-2, 2-1 MAC) out of first place in the East with some explosive offensive plays and an incredible second half defensive performance to take home a 23-13 triumph in front of the4 homecoming Huskies faithful.
It wasn’t a wire-to-wire guarantee either; the Huskies trialed 13-7 at the halftime break and had to hold the ‘Cats scoreless while also forcing three turnovers en route to the win.
The game started with a bit of a feeling-out period between both sides, with opening drives for both offenses completed without a first down.
Things heated significantly on NIU’s second drive starting with a dose of running back Antario Brown in both the traditional running formation and the Wildcat. Gavin Williams then sealed the deal on ripping off a 53-yard rush around the offensive left end for the score, the longest surrendered by the Bobcats all season.
Ohio answered on the next series with a 10-play, 51-yard drive for three points on a 27-yard Gianni Spetic field goal. The drive ultimately stalled when an untimely 12-men penalty created a third-and-12 in the redzone, which allowed the Huskies an opportunity to hold Ohio back.
NIU came out the next drive throwing against some soft coverage created by the 53-yard scoring run on the last series, but a couple of catchable balls were dropped to squelch the series. The Huskies were unable to find any rhythm for the rest of the first half, punting on consecutive possessions.
Ohio dominated the end of the first quarter and the second quarter, led by a methodical Ohio offense that scored 10 points on two drives totaling 29 plays and over 13 minutes.
On the first drive, the ‘Cats looked nuanced in spots, changing its tempo from slow to fast to surprise NIU and pick up a first on third down. The drive was capped on a two-yard run by Rourke on third-and-goal. With the right guard injured on second down, the ‘Cats linemen on the right side did a great job to give Rourke a crease on the TD run. Right tackle Shedrick Rhodes slid to right guard and reserve linemen Jacob Dennison came in at right tackle and got things done to create room for the score.
Ohio’s next drive started at its own 10, covering 16 plays and ending in another makeable 37-yard field goal by Spetic. The drive was a masterclass in QB play by Rourke. On an early third and eight and under pressure, Rourke uncorked a strike to WR Sam Wiglusz for a first down. A few plays later, Rourke saw an opening in the defense and scrambled for ten yards to keep things going.
The drive gave Ohio a 13-7 halftime advantage with time of possession in Ohio’s favor at almost two-to-one with just over 19 minutes.
The Huskies completely flipped the script in the second half winning the final two periods 16-0.
After holding Ohio’s offense to its first three-and-out, NIU burned Ohio’s defense on a play action on third-and-one, as Grayson Barnes slipped out the back side found himself wide open. QB Rocky Lombardi found him on the throw for an easy 58-yard score to give NIU the one-point lead.
The Huskies offense struck again on the next drive, a good mix of run and pass on a 12-play, 68-yard drive capped by a 31-yard field goal by Kanon Woodill. Key on the play was a 28-yard pass from Lombardi to wideout Davis Patterson to convert a third-and-eight.
After a third Ohio punt, NIU moved 40 yards in nine plays, capping the series on a 37-yard field goal by Woodill to stretch the lead to 20-13.
As the game moved from the third to the fourth quarter, the wheels fell off for Ohio’s offense, as the offense sagged under the weight of a stifling NIU defense. Ohio’s defense did what it could to stem the tide, but the wave was just too big.
NIU’s Cyrus McGarrell got the party started on an errant throw by Rourke returned to Ohio’s 20 after a 15-yard Bobcat penalty was added in.
Down by seven after McGarrell’s pick, Ohio’s defense stiffened led by linebacker Keye Thompson’s two tackles— including a loss of four yards on third-and-one— to force a 32-yard field goal by Woodil to keep the game within 10 points.
Rourke was picked again on the next drive by NIU’s Nate Valcarcel giving the Huskies possession at Ohio’s 20. To the Bobcat defense’s credit, they held NIU to a turnover on downs, keeping it a two-possession game.
Ohio’s offense could not capitalize on its good fortune with a third consecutive drive ending in an interception a knockout blow delivered by NIU’s JaVaughan Byrd on a nice play to take the ball from a Bobcat wideout to effectively end the game.
The Huskies continue to gain momentum with the win making it the third good performance in a row after a narrow loss to MAC West leader Toledo and a 55-14 beat down of Akron.
NIU was led by QB Rocky Lombardi, who was efficient in the win, managing the game well with 193 yards rushing and passing with one touchdown pass and no turnovers.
For the Huskies, it was great team defense with five players contributing five or more tackles in addition to the three interceptions.
Ohio’s defense was good enough to win today, holding a very good Huskies ground game to 134 yards, including the one play that went for 53 yards. The Bobcats defense played hard led by Bryce Houston with 11 tackles while defensive linemen Rayyan Buell and Bradley Weaver continue to grow with Buell impressive with seven tackles and three tackles for loss.
The game marked the first time since November 2021 that Rouke threw three interceptions in a game.
Both squads return to action next Saturday with Ohio looking to regroup when hosting Western Michigan while the Huskies host Eastern Michigan.