NIU

TOLEDO, Ohio — This season has certainly been a test of character for the Huskies.

Between close losses and key injuries, it seems like NIU has been scratching and clawing for everything it has gotten all season long.

In a must-win game Tuesday night against the University of Toledo at the Glass Bowl, that character was pushed to the brink, but this time, the Huskies passed the test with flying colors. After seeing a 28-7 lead evaporate during the fourth quarter into a 28-all game with just over five minutes to go, it took a final drive and a 25-yard field goal from John Richardson, redshirt first-year kicker, to decide it.

The 31-28 win pushes the Huskies’ record to 4-6 overall and 3-3 in Mid-American Conference West Division play, keeping alive their slim hopes for a bowl game and the MAC Championship.

“I saw resiliency from this team in the fourth quarter,” NIU Head Coach Thomas Hammock said. “Things started going bad, but guys stepped up and made great plays. That’s part of growing up and part of the maturity process as to where we need to go to build this football team.”

The Huskies have at times been playing with a patchwork lineup, and that was the case with the offensive line Wednesday, as three players made their first starts this season against the Rockets. 

The line had to gel quickly, and it did as NIU put together one of its most balanced offensive attacks on the season.

Brayden Patton, redshirt junior offensive lineman, stepped into the center position for the game; Nathan Veloz, redshirt senior offensive lineman, made his first start of the season, and Logan Zschernitz, first-year offensive lineman, made his first career start in a game televised nationally on ESPN2.

“[Wednesday] was good; whatever the coaches need me to play, I’ll do it and get the job done,” Patton said. “I just tried to make all of the calls and IDs right and make sure everyone got to the right place. It was great to establish the run early because that’s what we pride ourselves on — to establish the run, be physical and move the ball.”

The Huskies totaled 444 yards of offense, split evenly at 222 yards a piece from both the passing and running game. 

They opened holes for Tre Harbison, redshirt junior running back, who rushed for 158 yards and a touchdown on 32 carries, and gave the two-headed monster at the quarterback position, senior Ross Bowers and redshirt junior Marcus Childers, enough time to combine for 222 yards and a touchdown on 18-for-29 passing.

Childers is another player who has seen his share of adversity this season, but as the weeks go on, he is becoming more and more a part of the offense. 

After starting his first two years at NIU, Childers became the backup to Bowers over the summer and waited for his chance to get back on the field.

A huge catalyst in the Oct. 12 win at the University of Ohio, Childers put his stamp on this game as well. In the first half, he called his own number and scampered 40 yards for the score, then added another touchdown on a one-yard keeper in the fourth

With the game and the season on the line, and the Huskies facing a third-and-two from the Toledo 27, Childers gained 11 yards on another keeper to set up Richardson’s heroics.

“[On that final drive] we just told everyone to stay focused and keep doing us,” Childers said. “I just accepted my role early in the season and just do what they need me to do. I’m just happy to be part of a win and to have fun with my teammates.”

After over 59 minutes and a combined 952 yards of offense, the game once again came down to Richardson. Faced with a do-or-die kick for the second time this season, he calmly stepped up and drilled it through the uprights, just as he did when time expired in the 39-36 win at Ohio.

“Ohio was a lot more fun because there wasn’t any time on the clock, but this one was pretty special as well,” Richardson said. “I was just trying to stay calm. I know what I’m doing out there, and just trust myself and everyone out there with me, who have done a fantastic job all year.”

It’s been a trying season for the Huskies, but hopes of playing in December are still alive. For the Huskies to keep the season going, it will take the same type of effort as Wednesday — everybody doing their part, no matter what that part is.

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