Ohio faces Northern Illinois in MAC championship game
By NOAH TRISTER
The Associated Press
DETROIT — Chandler Harnish and Northern Illinois arrived at last year’s Mid-American Conference title game with an undefeated league record and a spiffy national ranking.
Then the Huskies were stunned when Miami of Ohio scored a last-minute touchdown to beat them.
Harnish and his teammates worked all season for another chance.
“I feel like this is where my legacy is going to be left,” the talented quarterback said. “As a senior class, this is what it’s all riding on.”
Northern Illinois will play for the title again Friday night at Ford Field, this time against the Ohio Bobcats. Each team is safely eligible for a bowl, but there are plenty of bragging rights on the line — not to mention the first MAC championship in a long time for whoever wins.
Northern Illinois last won the league in 1983, well before the conference instituted divisional play and the championship game. Ohio’s last title is even farther back, in 1968.
The Huskies were ranked 24th in the country when Miami stunned them 26-21, winning the championship on a touchdown with 33 seconds left.
The Huskies (9-3, 7-1) almost didn’t make it back for this year’s title game. They lost their MAC opener 48-41 to Central Michigan but rebounded with seven straight victories in must-win games.
The most memorable of those wins came Nov. 1 against a Toledo team that would end up tied atop the West Division with Northern Illinois. The teams combined for 1,121 yards, with the Huskies winning 63-60 when Harnish threw his sixth touchdown pass of the game with 19 seconds left.
Tommylee Lewis returned two kickoffs for touchdowns in the first five minutes of the first quarter for Northern Illinois.
“It looks like basketball scores sometimes,” Ohio linebacker Noah Keller said. “They’ve got a lot of playmakers.”
Northern Illinois scored at least 40 points in six of its conference games, and Ohio coach Frank Solich is leery of another high-scoring affair.
“They have a way of winning those,” he said. “Field position doesn’t seem to make a difference to them.”
Harnish has thrown for 23 touchdowns and four interceptions this season, and he’s also run for 1,351 yards. Ohio (9-3, 6-2) has an impressive quarterback of its own in Tyler Tettleton, who has thrown for 26 touchdowns and seven interceptions, and he’s ready for the challenge of keeping up with the Huskies.
“Whenever we do get in the red zone, we’ve got to put the points on the board,” he said.
Ohio reached the championship game two years ago, losing 20-10 to Central Michigan. The Bobcats beat Northern Illinois 38-31 that season, the last time these two teams faced each other.
Like the Huskies, Ohio got off to a difficult start in league play, losing two of its first three MAC games this year before winning five straight. Six of its eight conference games were decided by a touchdown or less.
Solich is in his seventh season as coach of the Bobcats, who are 49-39 under his guidance.
Dave Doeren is in his first season as coach of the Huskies. He took over when Jerry Kill left shortly after the 2010 MAC championship game to take the Minnesota job.
Doeren wasn’t a part of last season’s tough finish in the title game, but he’s heard plenty about it. His job has been to keep the team focused on this season.
“The players have talked a lot about Detroit,” he said. “I haven’t talked about it at all.”