Posted by Jerry Hinnen
NORTHERN ILLINOIS WON: If it hadn't come in the MAC Championship Game, it might have been the ugliest win of NIU's season--four turnovers, a 20-0 halftime deficit, a whole series of hare-brained penalties. But because it did come in the MAC title game -- giving the Huskies their first MAC crown since 1983, and redeeming the NIU seniors for last year's shocking championship loss to Miami (Ohio) -- it's going to go down as the prettiest victory of them all. All-MAC quarterback Chandler Harnish had far from his best game (his 31 yards rushing was his lowest total vs. any team that wasn't Wisconsin) but threw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes and set up the last-second game-winning field goal with the help of Perez Ashford's brilliant 27-yard reception. For Ohio, a 43-year MAC title drought will continue--and for Frank Solich, this third conference championship game loss will likely hit hardest of all.
WHY NORTHERN ILLINOIS WON: Their ... defense? The Huskies have been a sieve all season after graduating eight starters from the 2010 unit, and came into Friday's game ranked 91st in total defense, 94th in scoring. But led by junior defensive lineman Sean Progar (7 tackles, 4 QB hurries) and outstanding corner Jimmie Ward -- whose fourth-quarter interception marked the official turning point in NIU's late rally -- the Huskie defense vastly outplayed their much more celebrated colleagues on the offensive side. Three first-half NIU turnovers meant that only the good work by the Huskie D (including three stops inside their own red zone) was responsible for the halftime deficit wasn't already out of reach, and only one of Ohio's six second-half drives covered any more than 13 yards. And of course, thanks to Ohio kicker Matt Weller's first miss inside of 40 yards all season, the NIU defense didn't allow a point after the break--despite the fact that any Ohio score at any time would have effectively ended the game.
Harnish has been the star for NIU all season. But tonight, all the Huskies that really mattered played on the other side of the ball.
WHEN NORTHERN ILLINOIS WON: When Matt Sims' 33-yard field goal just snuck inside the left upright on the game's final play. The Huskies might not have even needed Sims' heroics if he'd hit an earlier extra point that would have put his team ahead 21-20 instead of stuck in a 20-20 tie, but no one will mind that much now.
WHAT NORTHERN ILLINOIS WON: A trip to the GoDaddy.com Bowl to face Arkansas State in what promises to be one of the best under-the-radar bowl matchups of the season. And we mentioned this is their first MAC championship game win, right, and their first MAC title in 28 years? That's a pretty big deal.
WHAT OHIO LOST: Given how many opportunities the Bobcats had to put this game to bed, this likely ranks as the most brutal of their three MAC title game losses under Solich, an out-and-out heartbreaker. They'll still head to Boise for the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, but the sting of this one isn't going to start to fade by then ... if it ever does.
Dave Doeren before-and-after photo credit: Getty