That was an ordeal.
A wacky, albeit disconcerting, second half nearly proved disastrous for the Northern Illinois Huskies. But NIU didn't lose focus and pulled out a 48-34 win over the UNLV Rebels on Saturday night in Las Vegas.
NIU (3-0) saw the Rebels take the opening drive of the game down into the Huskies red zone and grab a 3-0 lead after Jonathan Leiva's 25-yard field goal. But the Huskies would respond with a 15-play drive, finished off with running back Cameron Stingily's first touchdown of the year.
After getting pinned down to their own one-yard line, tight end Desroy Maxwell committed a chop block in the end zone, which is an automatic safety (as is any offensive penalty taking place in the endzone). NIU led it 7-5 after one.
It wasn't until midway through the second quarter when the Huskies found their offense again, finishing the half with two 80-yard touchdown drives and leading 21-5 at the break.
The third quarter started off well enough... a 10-play, 75-yard drive finished off by quarterback Drew Hare running in from 12 yards out. Then NIU got sloppy.
Rebels' star wideout Devante Davis grabbed his first touchdown of the night on the ensuing drive, a 26-yard snag to make it 28-12. Then, NIU coach Rod Carey put Anthony Maddie in at quarterback, giving Hare a drive off. Maddie didn't throw a single pass, handing the ball off eight times and setting up a 45-yard field goal from Tyler Wedel.
UNLV (1-2) started their next possession at their own five-yard line and were set to punt from their own six. But Desroy Maxwell, who had the chop block in the endzone in the first quarter, ran into Rebels' punter Logan Yunker, keeping the UNLV drive alive. Three plays later, Devante Davis beat freshman corner Albert Smalls for a 53-yard touchdown, and it was quickly 31-19.
Hare returned on the next drive, but a jet sweep with Da'ron Brown failed miserably and became the first NIU turnover of the season, giving the ball to the Rebs at their own 10-yard line. Running back Shaquille Murray-Lawrence scored on fourth and inches to make it 31-26.
A three-and-out followed for the Huskies, including an overthrow of Aregeros Turner on third down that would have been a touchdown. A UNLV punt would wrap up a miserable third quarter.
In the fourth, Wedel expanded the lead to 34-28 four minutes in with a 33-yard field goal, but UNLV wasn't done. Two big third down completions by quarterback Blake Decker set up Murray-Lawrence for his second touchdown of the night, and the two point conversion tied the game with 9:18 left.
In serious need of a jolt, NIU went back to the air to Brown, a 54-yard strike from Hare to give NIU the lead back. 41-34 with 8:23 to go.
The Rebels were driving again at the NIU 34 when defensive lineman William Lee sacked Decker, but was flagged for a throat slash after the play. Two plays later with UNLV at the Huskies seven-yard line, Decker was looking for Davis in the left side of the endzone. Paris Logan in coverage batted the ball into the air, and Marlon Moore came down with it in the back of the endzone for the interception. NIU drove down the field for the game-clinching score from Stingily, his second touchdown of the night.
The offense provided a lot to like, six touchdowns worth, to be exact. Five of the six touchdown drives were at least ten plays in length and went between 75 and 80 yards. NIU's running game is a monster, and put up 331 yards on UNLV. But even with the 27 points put up in the last two quarters, the second half was a mess for NIU. The Rebels' offense came to life with the aid of some shoddy coverage in the secondary (why no safety help on Davis?) and some mindless penalties.
NIU takes their 3-0 record to Arkansas next week, a team that has broken scoreboards their last two weeks. With the shaky defense on display in Vegas in the second half, next week could get ugly if things don't clean up in practice this week.
-Coincidence or not, this game took a turn following Anthony Maddie's one series of the game. The game broadcast confirmed what most of us figured... that Maddie's appearance was part of the grand Rod Carey plan because the quarterback competition is still on. But all it did was throw a wrench into Hare's machine, which was working quite well. He even found the endzone on the last drive, the third straight Huskies possession that resulted in a touchdown. If Maddie wasn't going to throw the ball at all (and he didn't), what was the point of giving Hare a rest if all he needed to do was hand the ball off? It was an unnecessary wrinkle to the plan, and the game flipped because of it. Remember, Hare came in the next possession and botched the jet sweep with Brown, then overthrew Turner on the possession after that.
-Stemming from that, a jet sweep from your own 10-yard line? Yes, there are actual reasons why NIU fans sometime feel Carey tries to outsmart the competition too much.
-A healthy Cameron Stingily is a stabilizing force for this offense. He was one of four Huskies with double-digit carries (Hare, Joel Bouagnon and Keith Harris). Credit to the offensive line as well who opened up 331 yards worth of running lane and didn't allow a sack.
-Desroy Maxwell had a game to forget.
-There's no debating... NIU's defense is aggressive and quick. But they were getting burned deep by a poor throwing club in the second half. That is an absolute priority this week in practice, or NIU may as well head to the bus at halftime in Fayetteville next week.
-Back to the Hare-Maddie thing, it's pretty simple... you either have one starting quarterback or none. Hare is the guy, and has done next to nothing to dissuade anyone's opinion on that. Until he proves otherwise, there is no reason to put Maddie into a game that's still in question like what happened Saturday.
-Carey announced after the game that Matt McIntosh is out four to six weeks with a lower body injury.
-These were rather pessimistic, and for that I apologize. But this game left me with a bad taste in my mouth, especially with Arkansas looming. So, a happy note... a really nice NIU contingent made the trip to Vegas it sounded like. Starting to become a great traveling program.