Football lived up to its motto Saturday night when it defeated Eastern Illinois at Huskie Stadium, 43-39, “the hard way.”
The Huskies (3-0) quickly found themselves facing their biggest deficit of the season, 20-0, in the middle of the first quarter. On the Panthers’ (3-1) first drive of the game, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo marched right down the field and threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to Erik Lora.
Following a failed two-point conversion, the Panthers pulled out some trickery when they recovered an onside kick. On the next play, Garoppolo hooked up with Adam Drake for a 43-yard touchdown pass to increase EIU’s lead, 13-0.
“You don’t beat a team like this playing straight up and playing by the rules,” said EIU coach Dino Babers. “If you’re going to come up and beat a team like this you’re going to have to bend the rules a little bit, and that’s what we were doing.”
The Huskies failed to get anything going offensively on their first possession and went three-and-out. The Panthers scored on their next possession as Garoppolo connected with Keiondre Gober for a 13-yard score.
From then on the Huskies’ offense shined. Quarterback Jordan Lynch led the Huskies down the field, setting up a five-yard touchdown run by running back Cameron Stingily.
NIU’s defense came up big on the Panthers’ next possession when defensive back Marlon Moore picked off Garoppolo.
“Our defense has a lot composure,” said senior safety Jimmie Ward. “After the 20-0 start, coach made some corrections and then we went out there and played ball.”
The Huskies capitalized off that turnover. Lynch hit Da’Ron Brown for a 51-yard pass, leading to another Stingily five-yard touchdown run, to make it a one-score game, 20-13.
NIU completed its comeback and tied it up at 20 when Lynch hooked up with tight end Luke Eakes for a three-yard touchdown. The Huskies weren’t done at they took a 23-20 lead before the half when kicker Mathew Sims hit an 18-yard field goal.
Out of halftime, Lynch led the Huskies down the field on an eight-play, 79-yard drive, culminating in a nine-yard touchdown run from running back Keith Harris Jr.
The Huskies rattled off 30 unanswered points to take a 30-20 lead.
After nearly 30 minutes of play without a score, Garoppolo hooked up with Lora on a 33-yard touchdown pass.
“We got stalled up once we were up 20,” Garoppolo said. “They got a good pass rush after us. They were only rushing a couple guys and got after me. There were some bad decisions on our part.”
After Sims drilled a 33-yard field goal, the Panthers tied the game at 33-33 when Garoppolo threw a 15-yard touchdown pass to Drake.
The Huskies regained the lead on Sims’ 37-yard field goal but the Panthers came back, as Garoppolo and Lora hooked up in the end zone for the third time on a 10-yard touchdown pass for a 39-36 lead.
Garoppolo finished the game with 450 passing yards and six touchdowns through the air. On his sixth touchdown pass of the night he tied former EIU quarterback Tony Romo’s record for the most touchdown passes in school history.
“He is the best quarterback we’ve played,” head coach Rod Carey said. “He’s going to be playing on Sundays. He’s legit.”
The Huskies had to come back one more time. Stingily had a huge 46-yard run to put the Huskies in the red zone. Two plays later, Harris ran eight yards into the end zone in what was the game-winning touchdown for the Huskies.
The running game was huge for the Huskies in the victory. Lynch recorded 189 yards and Stingily recorded 134 yards on the ground, his first career 100-yard rushing game. Stingily and Harris both had two rushing touchdowns in the game.
“Our running game had a lot of success thanks to the offensive line,” Harris said. “We just lowered our shoulder and kept it going.”