NIU’s road to Detroit is now clearly laid out.
After losing 14 of 16 to Toledo, the Huskies (8-2 overall, 6-0 MAC) were able to exact their revenge on the Rockets (6-4, 5-1) with a 65-30 shellacking Tuesday night.
The win gave NIU its seventh straight victory, and has given the Huskies a clear path to the MAC Championship. As the only undefeated team in conference play, NIU has only three-win Ball State and 1-8 Eastern Michigan left on its slate.
“By far, of the ones we’ve played [NIU is the best],” said Toledo head coach Tim Beckman. “The teams that we’ve played in our conference, there’s no question.”
The Huskies played a complete game on both sides of the ball. NIU’s offense out-gained Toledo 584-380, and held the ball for 37:18 to the Rockets’ 20:03.
The time of possession discrepancy was due in large part to NIU’s defense, which held Toledo to only 24 plays offensively in the first half.
The primary reason, though, was the play of NIU’s offensive unit, which was able to sustain long drives on the legs of both quarterback Chandler Harnish and tailback Chad Spann.
The two combined for 219 rushing yards, 149 of which came from Harnish.
Harnish also threw for 162 yards and one touchdown, surpassing the 6,000-yard mark for total offense, and moving into third place all time at NIU, moving ahead of Marshall Taylor.
Overall, NIU rushed for 422 yards as a team.
“I think we’ve always been able to do a good job of [controlling the clock],” said NIU head coach Jerry Kill. “I think the kids are playing with some good confidence right now. We had a good game plan and the kids executed it. I’ve always said that players win games, not coaches.”
That balance gave the Huskies a 28-0 halftime lead, and it was too much for the Rockets to overcome.
It was a complete first half for NIU, as the Huskies were able to put together five sustained drives, only one of which did not end in a touchdown.
Success on third down allowed the Huskies to dominate the time of possession in the first half, as they converted six of seven attempts to hold the ball for 21:40.
But the Rockets weren’t about to lay down.
Toledo started to show offensive progress at the beginning of the second half, opening the third quarter with nine unanswered points.
But a long NIU drive, featuring a career-long 69-yard rush from Harnish and capped by Spann’s 42nd career touchdown, put NIU back in the driver’s seat, 35-9.
Spann would total three touchdown rushes on the game, moving him to 43 on his career.
“It seems like these four years went really fast,” Spann said. “Getting to play in Huskie Stadium, this was my last time, and I’m a little sad that I’m going to be leaving this place.”
Toledo tailback Adonis Thomas would have none of it, though. The junior running back immediately busted out a career-long 60-yard touchdown scamper to answer back. The rush was the longest for any Toledo player this season.
Freshman wide receiver Akeem Daniels would continue to make his presence felt with a 50-yard touchdown run on the ensuing drive, his second score of the game.
“[Akeem] brings a type of speed that I don’t think we’ve had here in a long time,” Harnish said. “To get on the edge like that, I think it’s just another dimension that you have to defend us.”
Daniels finished the contest with two attempts for 62 yards.
The two teams would continue to trade scores until NIU would come out with a 35-point victory, and the last major hurdle toward a MAC Championship berth behind them.
“I think you credit the seniors, and the leadership guys,” Kill said. “I said ‘don’t buy into what everybody’s telling you.’ We’ve got two more weeks, we’ve got to see if we can do it. You’ve got to do it.”