It took a long time and a couple of quarterbacks, but the Northern Illinois Huskies found their offense and held off the Northwestern Wildcats on Saturday afternoon 23-15 in Evanston, Illinois.
After a shaky start from Matt McIntosh and one adequate series from Anthony Maddie, NIU coach Rod Carey went to redshirt sophomore Drew Hare in the second half, and the offense found life.
Hare was 6-for-10 for 109 yards and two touchdowns through the air, and ran for the game-clinching touchdown late in the fourth quarter, a five-yard scamper on third down.
Hare's first series under center led to a 32-yard field goal from kicker Tyler Wedel. After a negative second series, Northwestern grabbed their only lead of the day on a 19-yard quick hitter from Trevor Siemian to Kyle Prater. The Wildcats led 7-3 with less than five minutes to go in the third quarter.
NIU responded right after that with an 82-yard drive, capped off by Hare finding Da'Ron Brown over the middle for an 18-yard score. That drive was extended on a personal foul call on the Wildcats on third down and a 17-yard run off the left edge for running back Cameron Stingily on fourth down in Northwestern territory. Stingily was to miss most, if not all, of the nonconference schedule with an undisclosed injury, but carried the ball six times for 46 yards on Saturday.
In the fourth leading 10-7, NIU's defense held firm on 4th-and-6 inside their own 30 after giving up a 3rd-and-19 earlier in the drive. On the next possession, Hare found Brown a second time for a 59-yard touchdown. The post route, which was used often by Hare in the second half, came on second and 19 after lineman Adam Conlon was hit with an unsportsmanlike penalty for punching a player. Wedel would miss the extra point after the snap was bobbled. Hare's rushing score on the next drive would seal the win.
If you missed the scoreless first half, do a happy dance. NIU racked up just 142 yards of total offense in the first two quarters; Northwestern just 192. The lone highlight came from Huskies' cornerback Paris Logan, making an over-the-shoulder interception in the endzone midway through the first quarter. Tyler Wedel missed a 25-yard field goal from the right hash midway through the second, just after Wildcats' wide receiver Miles Shuler dropped a sure-fire touchdown. The half featured nine punts, one interception and a missed field goal. The sport has already sent this half of football to the depths of Hell, and should never be spoken of again.
The win marks the third straight for NIU over a Big Ten opponent and their first ever over their Chicagoland neighbors. With Hare's emergence today, he'll likely get the start next Saturday at UNLV barring anything unforeseen in practice this week. Hare was far and away the better passer of the three and showed more confidence carrying the ball. And as the Huskies embark on their next two difficult road games, it's better to have that question answered (hopefully).
-Akeem Daniels was the team's leading rusher (16 carries, 81 yards). The Huskies had seven different ball carriers.
-Northwestern hurt themselves quite a bit with four personal fouls and over 100 yards in penalties. Wildcats also suffered two key injuries... Siemian left late in the game with an ankle injury (his replacement threw a TD to make things interesting). Safety Traveon Henry did not play in the second half. NIU took advantage of his absence with a good amount of deep balls over the middle.
-Announced attendance at Ryan Field was 41,139. Judging by the television, I'd wager it was at least a 50-50 split of red and purple. Those who were there can confirm or correct.
-Thought the quickness of the NIU linebacking corps was a detriment at times today. Siemian went over the middle the majority of the day, which was a good chunk of the Wildcats' success on third down (14-23).
-Carey said the plan was to use all three QBs today, and that occurred. I think most people would be content with Hare getting the start in Vegas next week. There isn't much of a case to not, frankly.
-CHEST-PUFFING-OUT TIME: Northwestern stepped up to the plate and challenged NIU for in-state supremacy... would the folks in Champaign like to man up anytime soon? Sean Frazier will gladly take your call.