The Northern Illinois Huskies didn’t win a single game in the Covid-shortened 2020 season. Less than a year later the Huskies (8-3, 6-1 MAC) find themselves representing the MAC West in the MAC Championship Game.
The young team just keeps finding ways to win close games, like the one last night against the Buffalo Bulls (4-7, 2-5 MAC) that needed overtime to decide a winner.
Buffalo struck first on their opening drive when Alex McNulty connected on a 32-yard field goal to put the Bulls up 3-0. NIU would counter with a short field goal of their own midway through the second quarter to tie things up.
On the very next drive, UB would go ahead again, when running back Dylan McDuffie pushed his way into the endzone from the 1-yard line giving the Bulls a 10-3 lead that would last for...12 seconds. On NIU’s very next play, the Huskies ran a reverse to Trayvon Rudolph, who took it 75-yards and tied the game at 10, which is where the score would stay until the end of the half. The run was Rudolph’s third touchdown of 75-yards in the past four games.
NIU looked solid to start the second half, quickly scoring 14 points - a 48-yard Antario Brown touchdown run and a 7-yard Clint Ratkovich scamper - and taking a 24-10 lead with 7:37 to go in the third quarter.
However, Buffalo wouldn’t go quietly and, after forcing a fumble on a sack of Rocky Lombardi, UB running back Ron Cook Jr. cut the lead in half with a 22-yard TD run that made the score 24-17. Then, after forcing a Huskie 3-and-out, Buffalo would even the score, 24-24, when quarterback Matt Myers found Cook Jr. for a 13-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter.
After a long, time-consuming drive that ended with another short field goal for the Huskies, Buffalo got the ball back down three with under five minutes to go. The Bulls were able to drive some but stalled out around their own 40-yard line. McNulty would even the score on a massive 55-yard FG with 70 seconds to go.
Lombardi and the Huskies, with one last chance, drove down to the Bulls’ 20-yard line where Josh Richardson, NIU’s kicker fresh off a thrilling game winner last week, lined up for a 37-yard game-winning try as time expired. He was unable to win it two weeks in a row, as the wind pushed his attempt left and the game headed into overtime.
Buffalo started with the ball and easily picked up two first downs, setting up first and goal at the five yard line. On first down, McDuffie picked up three yards. On second down, he appeared to score but, upon review, his knee was down at the half-yard line before the ball crossed, setting up 3rd and very short.
Then, on third down, Myers took the snap, fumbled the ball forward, and NIU recovered it in the endzone, ending the Bulls threat. But the Huskies still needed to score to win...and that wouldn’t take long.
On NIU’s first play of overtime Ratkovich got the carry, found the corner, and ran 25-yards, untouched, to win the game - and the MAC West - for the Huskies.
The Huskies out-gained Buffalo 505-384 and once again used their running game to win.
NIU ran for 308 yards on the night, averaging 6.6 yards per rush. Rudolph ended the game as the leading rusher, finishing with 94 yards and a TD on three carries. Jay Ducker had 54 yards on 21 carries, Brown netted 71 yards and a TD on three rushes, and Ratkovich had 75 yards and two scores on his 11 attempts.
Lombardi threw the ball well, going 17/27 for 197 yards, and added 14 yards on his nine rushing attempts.
For the Bulls, McDuffie finished with 125 yards and a score on 29 carries. Myers had 162 passing yards and a TD on 16/23 passing and added 43 rush yards on his 11 carries.
Next week the Huskies finish their regular season at home when they take on WMU on Tuesday night. Buffalo also plays their final game of the season next Tuesday when they travel to Muncie to take on the Ball State Cardinals.