Huskie football senior class is ‘winningest’ in NIU history

By Brian Belford

Mobile, Ala.| Chandler Harnish walked into the Bowl game press conference barefoot.

NIU’s record breaking quarterback’s feet had carried him to victory for one last time, and he was finally able to kick off his shoes.

Harnish and the rest of the senior-laden team became the winningest class in NIU school history with 35 wins after it beat Arkansas State 38-20 in the Bowl in front of a crowd of 38,734 at Ladd Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Ala.

“The coaches called an aggressive game, it was the ultimate team game. I am proud of the Huskies, the entire team, our fans and how we represented Northern Illinois,” said NIU coach Dave Doeren.

During the game, Harnish broke his 24th school record, topping former NIU quarterback George Bork’s 49-year-old single-season mark of 3,077 passing yards, set in 1963. The redshirt senior signal caller finished with 3,212 passing yards in his final season as a Huskie. Harnish completed 18 of 36 passes for 270 yards while throwing two touchdowns and one interception.

“This is a storybook ending,” Harnish said. “The way we came out and beat a great Arkansas State team is something we ought to be proud of.”

Arkansas State (10-3) looked like it would be the team telling the story, after scoring the first 13 points of the game. The Red Wolves put points on the board on two short field goals and a touchdown on their first three possessions, giving them a 13-0 lead at the end of the first quarter.

No one on the NIU (11-3) sideline was worried by the deficit, however.

“[Being down] two scores was nothing for us; we’ve been down by a lot more,” Doeren said.

It would be the third time this season NIU would come back from a double digit deficit to win.

Harnish engineered an 11-play, 77-yard drive and found receiver Perez Ashford for a nine-yard touchdown making the score 13-7, before hobbling off with a tweaked ankle in the second quarter.

However, NIU rallied behind backup quarterback Jordan Lynch, who drove the offense down the field and scored on a three-yard touchdown run to make the lead 14-13.

After that drive, Harnish came back into the game to a standing ovation, but this time, it was the Red Wolves who helped the Huskies score.

NIU capitalized on two key Red Wolves mistakes; a muffed punt which the Huskies recovered, and after stopping the Huskies on downs, Arkansas State got called for roughing the kicker. That penalty set up a five-yard touchdown run by running back Jamal Womble, putting NIU up 21-13 at halftime.

“Penalties hurt us; they were momentum swingers and they certainly were the difference in the ball game,” said Arkansas State interim head coach David Gunn.

Arkansas State had a golden opportunity in the third quarter to retake the lead when defensive back Chaz Scales picked off Harnish. Yet the Red Wolves wasted the turnover, as quarterback Ryan Aplin threw a tipped pass that fell into the hands of NIU defensive back Jhony Faustin. Later, Harnish hooked up with receiver Martel Moore for a 43-yard bomb, which increased the Huskies lead to 28-13.

NIU kicker Matt Sims made a 22-yard field goal to give it a 31-13 advantage. The Red Wolves responded with a 70-yard touchdown catch by wide receiver Taylor Stockemer to make the score 31-20. But that would be it for the Red Wolves, who were stifled by the Huskies’ defense.

“They did a great job defensively. You have to give them credit,” Dunn said.

NIU defensive linemen Alan Baxter and Stephen O’Neal both had sacks on Aplin, who was pressured into three interceptions. One of Aplin’s three interceptions was returned 36-yards for a touchdown by the game’s defensive MVP, freshman Dechane Durante to make the final score 38-20.

“It’s special for us to go out this way: the winningest class, MAC champs, back-to-back 11 win seasons, back-to-back MAC West champs,” said NIU center Scott Wedige. “It is bitter sweet, but it’s sweeter right now.”