No bowling: Eastern Michigan football team slows down Northern Illinois, but can't finish MAC upset bid
The Eastern Michigan football team’s defense played at a championship level against Northern Illinois on Friday.
Its offense, however, wasn’t able to push the Eagles to bowl-eligible status at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb, Ill.
Northern Illinois’ 18-12 win earned it a spot in the Mid-American Conference championship game in Detroit next week, but the Huskies certainly didn’t win in their typical high-flying fashion.
The Huskies (9-3, 7-1) entered the game ranked seventh in the nation in yards per game (506.5) and ninth in points per game (41.6). Eastern Michigan (6-6, 4-4) allowed Northern Illinois just 286 yards of offense, with two big scoring plays accounting for more than 100 yards.
The second came when Huskies quarterback Chandler Harnish scored on a 68-yard run in the final seconds of the third quarter to put Northern Illinois ahead 18-6.
“I thought it was a good, hard-nosed football game that was played (Friday)," Eastern Michigan coach Ron English said. "It doesn’t come down to one play. It is really a culmination of plays. We had a chance on Chandler, we missed a tackle and he scored. That’s what happened.”
Eastern Michigan pulled within 18-12 on a 24-yard pass from Alex Gillett to Nick Olds with 6:19 left in the game and reached the Northern Illinois 31-yard-line on its final possession of the game before back-to-back sacks left the Eagles needing to convert a 4th-and-35 play.
Tight end Garrett Hoskins, who dropped a sure touchdown pass on the possession before the Olds touchdown, couldn’t come up with the 4th-down pass from Gillett, either.
In the third quarter, Gillett overthrew a wide open Hoskins in the flat for what would have been a touchdown. EMU settled for a Kody Fulkerson field goal.
“I’ve been in this for 20 years and I told our kids this: ‘We have to be good in November to win and you cannot allow yourself to not take advantage of opportunities,’" English said. "You saw there were some open guys in there. We dropped passes that were wide open, hit the guy in the hands. Our month of November has been like that. We just did not make the plays we had to make to win at the end of the year.”
The Huskies clinched a share of the MAC West title, and because they beat Toledo 63-60 on Nov. 1, they own the tiebreaker and have earned a second straight trip to the title game. They’ll play Ohio on Dec. 2 at Ford Field in Detroit.
Eastern Michigan lost a chance to be bowl eligible for the first time since 1995. The Eagles have the third-longest bowl drought in the FBS, spanning back to the 1987 California Bowl.
New Mexico State (1960) and Kent State (1972) are the only teams with more consecutive bowl-less seasons.
Northern Illinois scored first on Saturday, getting a 54-yard scoring run from Willie Clark.
After Fulkerson pulled EMU within 7-3 with a 20-yard field goal, the Huskies’ defense put points on the board when it tackled Dominique Sherrer in the end zone for a safety. A 54-yard punt by Ryan Neir left the Eagles pinned at their own 1-yard-line.
Northern Illinois’ Mathew Sims (39 yards) and Fulkerson (23 yards) exchanged field goals to make it 12-6 with 1:43 left in the third quarter.
Eastern Michigan’s three-headed tailback of Sherrer (16 carries, 43 yards), Dominique White (13-17) and Javonti Greene (2-6) were limited to 2.1 yards per carry. (Boxscore)
Gillett, who completed 11-of-25 passes for 147 yards, rushed 17 times for 67 yards for the Eagles. Harnish finished with 148 yards rushing on 17 attempts and completed 9-of-19 passes for 98 yards for NIU.
The improved defense was nothing new for the Eagles. After ranking 118th out of 120 FBS defenses last season by allowing 43.9 points, they allowed a respectable 24.3 this season.
"I continue to look at this thing as progress. It’s frustrating, yes, but we have some great seniors in there who didn’t quit on us," English said. "Our senior class is 16 strong-willed, terrific young men and I am proud of them. I’m just looking forward to continuing to move forward.”