NIU football punched its ticket to its third straight MAC championship game appearance with a Wednesday night win over Toledo.
The Huskies (10-1 7-0 MAC) defeated Toledo (9-2, 5-2 MAC) 31-24 behind a high offensive output from junior quarterback Jordan Lynch.
“The one thing you know in this conference is the best quarterback usually has the chance to win the MAC championship,” said Toledo coach Matt Campbell. “Right now he’s playing at an extremely high level and he’s a young man that plays very consistent. He’s certainly a special football player.”
Toledo opened the scoring early on, converting a touchdown on the first possession of the game, marching 72-yards downfield and hitting paydirt on a 1-yard touchdown run by junior running back David Fluellen.
Later in the first quarter, the defense started to pick up its effort, with both squads taking turns with takeaways via fumbles.
Lynch fumbled first, being stripped by senior safety Jermaine Robinson. This was Lynch’s first turnover in all of his MAC play this season, and junior safety Jimmie Ward would respond on the very next drive by stripping Fluellen.
Ward came up big once again in the second quarter, getting an interception that led to a scoring drive converted on a 5-yard backshoulder catch by senior receiver Martel Moore. This tied the game at seven.
Toledo scored for the final time in the first half, with junior quarterback Terrance Owens running the ball in from 1 yard out, giving the Rockets the lead, 14-7.
“I told these guys, ‘I want to show the world how great you are,’” said NIU coach Dave Doeren. “At halftime we talked about it, it wasn’t really any magic. It was giving those guys the information and the players made plays. As a coach that’s your job, to put guys into positions to make plays, and they did. They made a lot of them.”
Those plays came largely from Lynch and Moore, with the second half opening on a 2-yard pass to Moore, which resulted in a 73-yard touchdown play. Moore appeared to be down but the review confirmed the initial ruling of a touchdown.
“It wasn’t about fun, it was about winning the game,” Moore said. “I feel that if the ball is in my hands I got to make a play.”
Lynch posted 296 yards passing in the third quarter, completing 13-15 passes and throwing for two touchdowns. On the day, he recorded an NIU record-setting 569 yards of total offense and three touchdowns.
The score by Moore was the first touchdown in a string of four unanswered scores by NIU. The Huskies received touchdowns from senior receiver Perez Ashford and junior tailback Akeem Daniels. Junior kicker Mathew Sims contributed a 43-yard field goal.
Toledo had attempted to mount a comeback on the strength of a 63-yard interception return into the red zone by senior linebacker Dan Molls, but gave the ball right back to NIU when senior linebacker Tyrone Clark intercepted Owens. Molls felt that his play could have been a momentum changer.
“I was hoping to [change the momentum], we needed a big play,” Molls said. “It was a good opportunity for it. Things happen. Unfortunately, we didn’t make as many big plays as we needed to on defense.”
Toledo scored the final 10 points of the game to make the final score only seven points apart, but the real damage had been done in the third quarter.
Doeren believes this victory and the ability to reach the MAC championship game puts a stamp on the university’s football program.
“To be a great program you want to have sustained success,” Doeren said. “This program in the last decade is winningest program in the conference. To be in this game coming up three years in a row says a lot. To have 10 wins now three years in a row, hoping to get to 11 obviously. [And] to do it at the same time to have the academic success we’re having and the facilities? There’s a lot of great things going on right now.”