It wasn't pretty. In fact, the season was tumultuous as all hell, but the NIU Huskies are your MAC West Champs for a fifth straight year after defeating Western Michigan 31-21 on Friday.
The Huskies forced six WMU turnovers, and came from behind to earn their ticket back to Detroit, trailing by as much as 21-7 late in the 2nd quarter. NIU also held the Broncos to just 91 second half yards, including just 24 yards following a long drive to start the half that ended on a failed 4th-and-1 play by WMU quarterback Zach Terrell.
NIU jumped out to a hot start, with a 65-yard catch-and-run by Aregero Turner for an early 7-0 lead. That would be followed by a muffed kickoff, but the Huskies were unable to score on the ensuing drive. The Broncos would drive down the field, but would settle for a field goal to make it 7-3. Following another punt, Terrell led another drive down the field, finding Corey Davis for a 16-yard score to give WMU a 10-7 lead.
After Drew Hare had a snap go over his head, leading to a quick Western Michigan recovery, Jarvion Franklin would punch in another score to extend the lead to 16-7 as Andrew Haldeman would miss the point after. NIU would fumble the ensuing kickoff, leading to another field goal for a 19-7 lead shortly into the 2nd quarter.
That's when the fun began.
The Huskies were be forced to punt again, but Daniel Braverman was unable to come up with the ball, and NIU recovered. However, they were unable to convert again, with a blocked field goal attempt halting another drive. Western Michigan would drive down the field, but Franklin would fumble for the 3rd time in 4 games at the NIU 1-yard line. A chop block on the next play would result in a NIU safety, and a 21-7 lead for the Broncos.
With time winding down, NIU forced a Bronco punt, and quickly ran down the field to nab a field goal for a 21-10 halftime deficit. The two teams had combined for five fumbles in the half, a blocked field goal, and a safety, setting up an exciting second half.
With the first drive of the half, Western Michigan stormed down the field, but stalled out in the Huskie red zone. Bronco coach P.J. Fleck elected to go for it, and Terrell was tackled just short to end the drive and keep the game at 21-10 rather than 24-10 or more. Realizing there was now a huge opening to take advantage of, NIU pounced.
The Huskies went 90 yards in just two minutes to make it a 21-17 game. Terrell would throw an interception - one play after an apparent facemask was not called for a first down - on the ensuing drive, and the two teams would trade punts with NIU keeping the ball in the WMU half of the field for the remainder of the quarter.
NIU would march down the field to start the fourth quarter to make it 24-21, and would continue to shut down the Bronco offense, forcing another 3-and-out. They used a solid run game to burn the clock and set up another field goal attempt, but Christian Hagan banged it off the left upright to keep the game close. Terrell started to move the Broncos for the first time since the failed 4th down attempt, but would be stripped on a pass to give the ball back to NIU with just 1:39 to go. Hare would score shortly after to put away the game for good. Terrell would end the game with an interception.
Hare was not great, but was solid in the second half. His final line of 9-for-20 for 159 yards and a touchdown was not eye popping, especially with the lone touchdown coming at the very start, and going 8-for-19 for 96 yards the rest of the way. However, he also ran for 36 yards and a pair of touchdowns while not turning the ball over at all (bad snap aside).
Terrell on the other hand had a rough second half. Despite going 23-for-33 for 256 yards and the touchdown to Davis, the sophomore threw a pair of interceptions and had a crucial fumble late. He was also sacked 4 times giving him a net rushing total of -19 yards. The Huskies would also shut down Franklin to the tune of just 92 yards on 29 carries, allowing only one touchdown to the freshman, who has scored in every game this year.
Braverman and Davis finished with five catches apiece (same as Franklin), but Braverman had 88 yards and Davis had 59 yards, with the latter seemingly a non-factor in the second half. For NIU, it was all about the run game, with Joel Bouagnon going for 70 yards on just 6 carries and Akeem Daniels getting 58 yards on 8 carries and his first rushing touchdown of the season.
In all, the Broncos finished with 6 turnovers, the most for them since facing Kent State in October, 2012. The Golden Flashes ended up winning the MAC East that season, with the Broncos going 4-8. The Huskies only had two turnovers, with none following a rough 1st quarter. They did have a safety, a blocked field goal, and a missed field goal, but will look to avenge their heartbreaking loss to Bowling Green from a year ago next week.
For Western Michigan, they finish 8-4 with a bowl game likely. The +7 win jump from a year ago is the best in the NCAA, with Fleck looking forward to attempting to earn the program's first bowl victory. NIU will look for another MAC Championship, and a possible Group of Five Championship bowl bid if the right dominoes fall in their favor.