In the true opening game of this season’s “#MACtion,” the Tuesday and Wednesday nationally-televised, marquee league games scheduled by the Mid-American Conference each November, Northern Illinois extended to six its winning streak over West Division contender – and 24th-ranked, undefeated – Toledo in an improbable thriller, 32-27.
This was supposed to be the year for the Rockets to finally get over the hump against their recent nemesis, coming into the game fresh off being pegged at 24 in the first College Football Playoff rankings and boasting Power 5 wins over Arkansas and Iowa State. The Rockets entered 2015 into the year returning eight defensive starters, All-MAC running back Kareem Hunt, and got Northern this time at the Glass Bowl.
The night started off well for the Rockets, who slashed and gashed NIU’s defense to stake out a 17-7 first quarter lead. The Huskies’ entire offense to that point was a 67-yard touchdown bomb from quarterback Drew Hare to diminutive deep threat Tommylee Lewis; Lewis later caught another bomb to convert a 3rd-and-39 that led to an NIU field goal.
On the next drive, Lewis was lost for the game to a non-contact knee injury – on the drive after that, Hare was lost for the season to a non-contact ankle injury. In the span of ten minutes of game time, NIU lost its two best offensive players.
Still, the Huskies just wouldn’t go away, with novice redshirt freshman Ryan Graham taking over at quarterback. NIU’s defense, its stellar secondary in particular, came alive as it often has during their recent run of success, and kicker Christian Hagan made three more field goals to bring the score to 24-19 as the game entered the fourth quarter.
During the third, Toledo’s Hunt, who finished the night with 140 yards on 25 carries, scored from the 1 on fourth down to cap off a drive that started with his 37-yard dash. After that, the Rockets’ offense went nearly silent.
Graham was fortunate to have wide receiver Kenny Golladay, who simply took over the fourth quarter. His spectacular one-handed touchdown catch brought the Huskies to 27-25 at the 9:27 mark, and he burned Toledo’s secondary for a 44-yard catch on NIU’s very next possession.
Four plays later, with two minutes left in the game, running back Joel Bouagnon barreled through the otherwise very stout Toledo defensive line for a 2-yard touchdown. The ensuing two-point attempt failed, but the score would hold up after NIU linebacker Boomer Mayes intercepted a short pass that passed straight through the hands of its intended receiver.
The Huskies’ quest for a sixth-straight MAC Championship berth stays alive with NIU at 4-1 in the MAC and games left at Buffalo and home against 4-0 Western Michigan and Ohio. Once again, they own the tiebreaker over Toledo.
With so many Power 5 head coaching jobs already available, this game may well have been the last between NIU’s Rod Carey and Toledo’s Matt Campbell, whose 22 MAC wins still don’t include one over the Huskies.