Friday night in Detroit, a classic MAC Championship game happened. Northern Illinois won 30-29 to complete a comeback that did not seem possible in the third quarter. Buffalo scored a touchdown at the end of a 75 yard drive to take a 29-10 lead. After that the teams traded punts, and late in the third Marcus Childers threw an interception. After that pass, NIU charged back to win the game. So what happened? Something had to change for a bad offense to score 20 points in 16 minutes against a good defense.
Buffalo Was Rolling
From the opening drive, it appeared the usual Northern Illinois game plan was not going to work. A modest 8 play drive for 31 yards and a good punt gave Buffalo bad field position. Buffalo did not care and drove 94 yards for a touchdown. If long fields weren’t going to give NIU the edge they needed, it looked like they were in trouble.
Almost the exact same sequence repeated itself the next two drives. The Huskies went 37 yards and stalled. The Bulls went 94 yards for a touchdown. Being down 13-0 with 14:55 left in the second quarter is the stuff of nightmares for the Huskies. NIU managed to score points on the next possession but went into the half down 22-10. The Bulls got the ball first in the second half and scored their last points on 8 plays. After two more inconsequential drives, Buffalo intercepted a pass and the game appeared to be over.
To this point in the game, Tyree Jackson had thrown for 198 yards, two touchdowns, and ran 3 times for 35 yards. He was under pressure, as expected, but not sacked, and was able to get the ball away just in time all game. The Buffalo running backs had combined for 26 carries and 116 yards with two touchdowns. Anthony Johnson was having a monster game with both of the touchdown receptions in the game. The game was going perfectly to script.
The Huskies were struggling. Marcus Childers was 10 for 17 with 129 yards, one touchdown and one interception. That’s a pretty solid passing game for him but it wasn’t enough. The running game could not get going. Childers and Tre Harbison combined for 70 yards on 20 carries. The defense that they needed to lean on was getting shredded and hadn’t registered a sack.
Northern Illinois Adjusts
I’m sure the NIU coaching staff was crafting the adjustments prior to this point in the game but immediately after the interception is when it showed. In the next Buffalo possession, the Huskies picked up three sacks. One was by the amazing Sutton Smith and two by his teammate Josh Corcoran. The sacks coupled with a bad punt gave NIU a short field. DJ Brown caught a 28 yard touchdown pass to pull within 12.
The Huskies in their next drive started at their own 37 and scored on a 32 yard pass to Spencer Tears. Buffalo’s next drive was a disaster. It was about as bad as it gets without a turnover. After a third down conversion, Buffalo got a holding penalty to set them back. Kevin Marks ran the ball for three yards and an incomplete pass resulted in a 3rd and 17. Pressure forced Jackson to scramble deep into the backfield when Sutton Smith shot past blockers to sack Jackson for a 14 yard loss.
That play took away the opportunity away to pin NIU deep in their own territory and resulted in NIU having the ball on their own 30. During this drive, NIU did not run the ball once, and eventually scored the game winner on a beautifully thrown ball to DJ Brown for 35 yards. It was the most anti-NIU drive this season. Buffalo could not find the gas pedal on their last drive and the Huskies are MAC Champions.
Down the home stretch, Marcus Childers threw for 171 yards on 11 completions and 16 passes. His counterpart, Tyree Jackson, went 5 for 13 for 54 yards in the same time frame. Jackson was also sacked 4 times for -37 yards total.
How Crazy is This Finish?
I wrote a preview for this game that included a good amount of research. Could a game like this be predicted or expected? It was stated that the gameplan for the Buffalo defense could be to stack the box and make Childers have a career game to win. It seems that is what they did. Buffalo held NIU to 3.2 yards per rush. If you would have told me that Childers would need to throw for 300 yards and 4 touchdowns to win, I would have bet the house on Buffalo. I didn’t think that he would be have the right plays called to be that explosive, let alone execute those plays.
Buffalo got the explosive plays they need to win, until they stopped. They had 8 plays of 15 yards or more. They dropped off in the second half almost entirely. Tyree Jackson was inaccurate for the game, only completing 51% of his passes. However, once the pressure of the NIU front started to get to him, he really fell apart.
Once again, when the Huskies controlled the down and distance they scored points. On their touchdown drives they went 4 of 5 on third down conversions. The one time they failed, they converted a fourth and one on the next play.
Finally, the absolute key that is the hardest part to understand from this game is the explosiveness that the Huskies displayed. If the NIU coaching staff new that the offense was capable of this level of play, why didn’t they show it before the championship game? There’s no way that they knew it, and it may not be a repeatable game for the Huskies. No matter how surprising the result and the comeback is, the MAC Championship was well won by the Huskies.