Huskie win launches Toledo Rockets out of MAC title contention

James Krause

The football team won a key conference matchup Wednesday against the Toledo Rockets 38-15, putting themselves closer to clinching the west division.

Coach Rod Carey said he thought the team had it’s best all-around performance in a heated battle of top-level programs.

“This game was probably the most complete game we’ve played this year so far in all three phases,” Carey said. “[ I] thought the offense sputtered a little bit in the first half but the defense hung in there.”

The Huskies’ backfield gave the team a major edge, with sophomore running back Tre Harbison gaining 139 yards on the ground and junior running back Marcus Jones rushing for 103 yards.

Harbison said the blocking upfront gave him and Jones the holes they needed to get big gains.

“It was really up to our offensive line and tight ends,” Harbison said. “They were moving guys. If you got holes that big, I feel like anyone can run through them.”

The attack on the quarterback from NIU’s defense helped the team pick up five sacks on the night, two and a half credited to sophomore defensive tackle Jack Heflin.

Junior defensive end Sutton Smith, who scored a touchdown on a blocked punt, said the defense played fast and physical.

“They’re a good unit, but we were just playing very fast and very physical,” Smith said. “We did well on the edge and our defensive tackles were just playing so dominant.”

NIU appeared to have picked up a first down at their own 45 on its opening possession, but officials reversed the decision following a review. The Rockets defense got stopped NIU on fourth and inches to force the turnover on downs.

Toledo reached the NIU eight with goal to go, but costly incompletions from sophomore quarterback Eli Peters forced the Rockets to settle for a 25-yard field goal from senior kicker Jameson Vest. Toledo took the 3-0 lead early in the first quarter.

Senior wide receiver Jauan Wesley caught a pass from Childers but fumbled on his run after the catch, giving Toledo the ball just short of midfield.

Peters put Toledo deep in NIU territory, but the Rockets failed to extend their lead with Vest missing a 36-yard field goal wide left.

Smith came up with a sack on the next Toledo possession, forcing the Rockets to punt from the shadow of their own endzone.

With good field position, Childers ended a five play drive when he scrambled out of the pocket to find sophomore tight end Corey Lersch, who rumbled his way to the endzone for a 33 yard touchdown. NIU took a 7-3 lead to end the first quarter.

Peters had the Rockets moving on their next drive, but a pass batted down by Smith on third down forced another punt for Toledo.

NIU took over from inside their own 10, but were able to put together a long drive to extend their lead to 10-3 with a 48-yard field goal from senior kicker Andrew Gantz.

Toledo finally found the end zone with a leaping 23-yard touchdown catch by senior wide receiver Jon’Vea Johnson. The Rockets missed the extra point attempt, and NIU held their 10-9 lead with 4:38 remaining in the first half.

NIU’s special teams came up with a big play late in the half, as Smith blocked a punt from sophomore Bailey Flint and returned it 27-yards himself for a touchdown. The Huskies led the Rockets at halftime 17-9.

Carey credited Smith for his awareness and reaction to make a game changing play.

“Sutton did a great job of reacting on his own, getting the block and then getting it in,” Carey said.

Jones gave the Huskies a spark on offense early in the third, with a 17-yard rush to put NIU inside the Toledo five-yard line.

Childers finished the 11 play, 82 yard drive with a one yard touchdown and the Huskies took a 24-9 lead.

The Huskies were driving again late in the third before Childers turned over the ball by throwing an interception to freshman Zachary Ford. The defense made up for the mistake, with a sack by sophomore defensive tackle Jack Heflin forcing a punt.

NIU got another great play from their backfield with a 33-yard rush by Harbison. Two plays later, Childers ran the rest for his second rushing touchdown of the game to give NIU a big 31-9 lead going into the fourth quarter.

The Rockets added a touchdown to their final score with a one-yard rush from sophomore Shakif Seymour, which Jones answered with a 44-yard touchdown run of his own for the final 38-15.

The loss for Toledo puts them at 5-5 and eliminates them from contention in the West Division.

The win puts NIU at 7-3 and extends their winning streak to six straight games. The Huskies are one game away from clinching the West Division title and a spot in the MAC Championship game in Detroit on Nov. 30.

NIU can clinch the spot by winning their home matchup next week against the Miami of Ohio Redhawks or with a Western Michigan Broncos loss to the Ball State Cardinals.