NIU was lucky to escape Toledo with a 22-20 win in an early yet surprisingly pivotal Mid-American Conference West battle. At the same time, NIU really should have won by three touchdowns.
But a win is a win, and the Huskies are off to a 2-0 start in conference play and have won three straight overall after not only an 0-6 campaign in 2020 but a 63-10 loss three weeks ago at Michigan.
Four of the Huskies’ six games have been decided by a single score. Twice NIU (4-2, 2-0 MAC) has orchestrated a winning drive in the closing minutes, and once the Huskies gave up the winning drive with less than two minutes left.
And while the threads on all those games have been different, one thing jumps out about the win against the Rockets: It didn’t have to be this hard.
NIU had 114 yards after one quarter and 286 at the break but was clinging to a 16-14 lead. It was almost trailing and without a touchdown if not for Antario Brown breaking off a 37-yard run just before the half for a score.
The tone was set early. A holding call on the first drive of the game backed the Huskies out of the red zone, and they had to settle for the first of five John Richardson field goals. On the next drive, a touchdown run by Clint Ratkovich was overturned on review. But NIU still had a third-and-goal on the 1 of Toledo. But not for long.
Marques Cox was called for a false start, Rocky Lombardi missed his third-down pass to Tristen Tewes, then Richardson missed a 22-yard field goal.
Next drive, Lombardi fired an interception at the Toledo 30. All those yards, three potential touchdown drives, three total points.
And the first drive of the second quarter was more of the same. It may not have had that obvious example of self-sabotage, but it still got down to the Toledo 8 after 13 plays, 72 yards, 7:23 off the clock. And it came away with only three points.
So the defense finally gives up a touchdown on the next drive. But instead of it being somewhere between 19-0 and 28-0, the Huskies are down, 7-6.
Another field goal temporarily gave them the lead, but the Rockets (3-3, 1-1) answered back with one of those touchdowns that eluded the Huskies all half until Brown came up with what would end up being the second most important offensive play of the day with the touchdown 26 seconds before halftime.
The Huskies apparently were asking the defense to pitch a second-half shutout, on the road, in the Glass Bowl, which to be honest seems like a big ask. And it was, as Toledo found the end zone one more time for a 20-19 lead with 3:35 left.
That’s when things turned around for Lombardi. He finished 14-of-24 passing for 154 yards, but like in the 22-21 win at Georgia Tech, he came up biggest when it mattered most. At the Toledo 41 with 46 seconds left, Lombardi went down the sideline to Tyrice Richie. This time, he connected with the standout for a 34-yard gain, putting the Huskies firmly in Richardson’s range. The kicker ended up draining a 29-yarder with 26 seconds left for the win.
So NIU escaped with another thriller. If the Huskies aren’t playing Big Ten powerhouses or Football Championship Subdivision schools, they are playing games that come down to the final drive. And they are winning most of them.
If they could only stop shooting their own foot, they could be trading late-game theatrics for kneel-downs, but for now that doesn’t seem to be what this still-young team is.
But the Huskies are a winning team, they are the MAC West leaders. That’s what matters most.
• Eddie Carifio is sports editor of the Daily Chronicle. Write to him at email@example.com.