Northern Illinois ends Rockets division title hopesWritten by Nate Pentecost | | firstname.lastname@example.org
The University of Toledo appeared poised to end Northern Illinois’ reign as division champions after a half of play Wednesday night, taking a 14-7 lead into the visiting locker room at Huskie Stadium.
But an impassioned first 30 minutes of play was soon overshadowed by a disastrous second half which ensured the Huskies a 31-24 win and their third-straight Mid-American Conference West division crown.
After keeping the high-powered Northern offense to 151 yards in the first half, Toledo surrendered 347 yards in the third quarter alone, including 332 from junior quarterback Jordan Lynch. NIU did not face a third down, moving the chains 14 times and ripping off three unanswered touchdowns to help clinch the division against Toledo for the third consecutive year.
“They made some really good adjustments in the second half,” said UT head coach Matt Campbell. “I don’t know if we made the adjustments we needed to be successful as a coaching staff. They opened it up, spread it out and got it to their athletes in space.”
The Huskies struck on the first play from scrimmage in the second half on a 73-yard pass from Lynch to Martel Moore.
Moore was tripped after making the catch just past the line, but maintained balance through a pack of Rockets before rising up and sprinting off to paydirt to tie the game at 14.
Toledo reacted as if Moore was down, though the whistle was never blown.
“That’s why you play to the whistle and that’s why you finish plays,” Campbell said. “That’s a heartbreaker because we had a guy there, we had him down.”
The Rockets looked ready to counter as they made their way to the NIU 26-yard line on the ensuing drive, but wide receiver Bernard Reedy stumbled on his route inside the Huskies 5-yard line, leading to Owens’ second interception of the night.
Lynch went right back to work, completing seven-straight passes to take Northern 99 yards for a touchdown and their first lead of the night.
After stopping the Rockets on 4-and-three at the NIU 26, the Huskies moved steadily down the field again, but senior linebacker Dan Molls made a leaping pick on a jump pass at the UT 3, returning the ball 63 yards to give the Rockets a chance to tie.
In addition to grabbing his third interception of the season, Molls finished with a game-high 16 tackles to maintain his national lead.
“We needed a big play and there was a good opportunity for it,” Molls said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t make as many plays as we needed to on defense.”
Owens hurried a deep pass under duress on second down which resulted in his third interception of the night and another Northern touchdown. The junior signal caller has thrown five picks the past four games.
An NIU field goal made it 31-14 midway through the fourth quarter but the Rockets did not go down without a scrap.
The following drive Owens completed three passes to Reedy for 49 yards, accounting for the bulk of the yardage which set up a five-yard Cassius McDowell touchdown scamper.
A fumble forced by Ross Madison and pounced on by Junior Sylvestre gave way to 34-yard field goal by Jeremiah Detmer, cutting the deficit to seven with just under six minutes to go.
Lynch converted twice on third down on the final possession to secure the Huskies trip to Detroit for the MAC title game. He finished the night with 407 yards passing, 162 yards rushing and three touchdowns.
Owens recorded a stellar first half, completing 15-of-17 throws for 162 yards with a touchdown and an interception, but faltered in the second, completing seven of 15 passes with two untimely interceptions.
“It hurts,” said Molls on losing out on the division title. “This is what we’ve been working for since December when last year’s season ended. But this Rocket football team is not done. There’s still a lot of things we can accomplish this season. We’re not quitting.”
Toledo hosts the Akron Zips next Tuesday in its regular season finale. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Glass Bowl.
Photo credit: Vincent D. Scebbi