By David Brandt | The Associated Press
MOBILE, Ala. – Northern Illinois quarterback Chandler Harnish’s ankle was hurting. Even worse, Arkansas State had a 13-point lead.
To an outsider, the Huskies looked like they were in trouble. But NIU coach Dave Doeren knew his team was right where it needed to be.
The Huskies’ eight-game winning streak had been built on overcoming bad situations just like this one.
“We just started to run our plays better,” Doeren said. “We kind of shot ourselves in the foot a little bit in the first quarter. Our coaches called an aggressive game and we made a couple of plays that swung the momentum. Two scores is nothing for us. We’ve been down way more than that this year.”
Martel Moore caught eight passes for 224 yards and a touchdown, and Northern Illinois rallied for a 38-20 victory over Arkansas State in the GoDaddy.com Bowl on Sunday night. The Huskies’ nine-game winning streak is second only to LSU, which plays for the national championship against Alabama on Monday night.
Moore, a 6-foot-2, 182-pound junior from San Antonio, Texas, had 523 yards receiving all season until Sunday’s monster performance. Harnish was more than happy to cede the spotlight.
“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.”
The late-night game ended with a midnight celebration for the Huskies at midfield. It sure didn’t start so well.
The Huskies trailed 13-0 late in the first quarter, but the Mid-American Conference champions scored 31 unanswered points on the way to their ninth straight victory. It was the third time this season Northern Illinois (11-3) rallied from a double-digit deficit to win.
Arkansas State (10-3) had its nine-game win streak snapped. The Sun Belt champions couldn’t overcome five turnovers – including three interceptions thrown by Ryan Aplin.
Harnish completed 18 of 36 passes for 274 yards and two touchdowns in his final college game. He came in as the nation’s top rushing quarterback, averaging 106.3 yards per game, but was limited to minus-3 yards on the ground.
Arkansas State jumped out early, but the score was almost disappointing considering the Red Wolves had to settle for two short field goals instead of touchdowns. Brian Davis connected on kicks from 32 and 36 yards before Aplin scored on a 2-yard run.
The missed opportunities kept Northern Illinois close, and after some early trouble on offense, the Huskies made their move.
“We stopped beating ourselves and started playing our game,” NIU coach Dave Doeren said. “Our coaches called an aggressive game and we made a couple of plays that swung the momentum. Two scores is nothing for us. We’ve been down way more than that this year.”
Harnish hit Perez Ashford on a 9-yard touchdown pass two plays after a disputed spot on fourth down kept the drive alive, pulling the Huskies to 13-7 just before the end of the first quarter.
The Huskies briefly lost Harnish because of his injured left ankle early in the second quarter, but backup Jordan Lynch engineered a 7-play, 78-yard drive that ended with his 3-yard touchdown run. That gave NIU a 14-13 lead with 4:49 left in the first half.
Harnish returned to lead the Huskies on another touchdown drive just before halftime. Doeren gambled on the final play of the drive, going for the touchdown with 2 seconds remaining instead of a point-blank field goal try. It worked, as Jamal Womble plowed forward for a 1-yard touchdown that gave Northern Illinois a 21-13 halftime lead.
Arkansas State was called for a pivotal roughing-the-kicker penalty on a fourth down that extended the drive.
‘Ready to play’
Arkansas State was coached by David Gunn, who took over in an interim role after Hugh Freeze left for Ole Miss. Both Freeze and the Red Wolves’ new coach – former Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn – watched the game at Ladd-Peebles Stadium, but were powerless to help as Northern Illinois rallied for the victory.
“Our kids came ready to play, and I am proud of them,” Gunn said. “Many things have transpired over the last 30 days, but these young men have shown great resolve over that period of time.”
Arkansas State briefly regained momentum early in the third quarter after Chaz Scales intercepted Harnish’s pass, but Northern Illinois got the ball back three plays later when Jhony Faustin intercepted Aplin. On the next play, Harnish threw a 43-yard touchdown to Moore to extend the lead to 28-13.
Arkansas State briefly pulled within 31-20 on Aplin’s 16-yard touchdown pass to Stockemer, but Northern Illinois responded with an interception that Dechane Durante returned for a touchdown to put the game out of reach.
Aplin completed 30 of 58 passes for 353 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. Taylor Stockemer caught 11 passes for 185 yards and a touchdown.
“We had a couple of big plays early,” Stockemer said. “But we just made a couple mistakes and got out of rhythm, and I don’t think we ever got it back.”
Northern Illinois’ victory helped the MAC finish with a 4-1 record in bowl games.