On a frigid Tuesday night, Northern Illinois and Ohio went back and forth with neither team leading by more than a touchdown. But when the clock expired, the Huskies had held on to a 21-14 lead to improve their record to 9-2, while ensuring the Bobcats would not have a winning season.
From a purely statistical standpoint, Ohio had the better game: they generated more yards of total offense. They converted more third downs. They had fewer penalties. But in the end, it came down to turnovers, and although the Bobcats only had two, they were costly. The second turnover came when NIU linebacker Boomer Mays knocked the ball out of Ohio receiver Landon Smith's hands after Smith had caught the ball on the NIU 34. With only 1:57 left to play after Marlon Moore scooped up the fumble, it crushed Ohio's last chance to tie the Huskies and effectively ended the game.
By this point in the season, it is no longer surprise to Bobcat fans for freshman walk-on A.J. Ouellette to have a great game. It is as shocking as learning that the Pope is Catholic or that weeknight college football games are a bad idea. Ouellette rushed for 127 yards on 25 carries, good for more than 5 yards per carry. He also scored both touchdowns and converted a crucial 4th-down on the final drive that was rendered meaningless by the fumble a few plays later.
Right behind him for rushing yards was Ohio quarterback Derrius Vick, who tucked and ran 12 times for 80 yards. He also completed 19 passes for 141 yards and a touchdown, although he did throw an interception immediately after the Bobcats had recovered a fumble in NIU territory. Overall, though it was a strong performance from the junior, who has been doing his best recently to distance himself from J.D. Sprague.
Huskies' quarterback Drew Hare had the better game, completing 15 passes for 178 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He also led his team in rushing with 67 yards. It was a solid performance that NIU desperately needed as the team's running backs struggled against Ohio's stingy defensive line.
The game initially did little to excite the few fans who decided to brave the cold to watch the Bobcats one last time. The first five drives ended with four punts and a missed field goal from Josh Yazdani. NIU running back Cameron Stingily finally punched the ball in the endzone from two yards out on the first play of the 2nd quarter. On the back of A.J, Ouellette and a pass-interference penalty, the Bobcats responded on the next drive to tie the game at 7.
Neither team would score again until Akeem Daniels hauled in a 32-yard touchdown pass form Hare five minutes into the 3rd quarter.
For the fans armed with vast amounts of patience and layers who stayed, things got more interesting in the final quarter. Ouellette caught an 8-yard touchdown pass with 9 minutes remaining in the game. On the following drive, the Huskies drove 70 yards on eight plays and scored on a connection from Hare to Chad Beebe.
Ohio had the ball with six minutes left, and looked destined to tie the game. Faced with a fourth down, they excellently executed a trick play. Vick approached the line, as if he were going to adjust the play. The ball was then snapped directly to Ouellette, who easily picked up the 1st against a surprised Huskies defense. But it was all rendered meaningless for the Bobcats just 6 plays later. After recovering the fumble, Hare ran on three straight plays to pick up the first down and end the game.
For the Huskies, a win next week will lock up the MAC West, and even a loss should still be enough for a bowl berth. For Frank Solich's squad, though, it appears that the run of bowl appearances has ended (the fact that a .500 team is even in the conversation for a bowl, no matter how slim, is absurd in this writer's opinion). A week from today, the Bobcats will travel to a deserted Oxford, Ohio to play rival Miami with little more than pride on the line.