If there is a more incredible story among the non-AQs this season, please show it to me.
Where do we start handing out the credit? First of course is MAC Coach of the Year Mike Haywood, who has engineered the biggest turnaround in college football this season. Miami won nine games, and he has completely changed the culture in the program, laying down tough rules and expecting nothing but hard work and discipline. His team also won with games on the line -- Miami is 7-0 in games decided by seven points or fewer.
Many might question his decision to go for a fake field goal midway through the third quarter, with the RedHawks up 20-14. When you are the underdog, conventional wisdom calls for you to try to take as many points as you can get. Maybe Haywood was skittish because his special teams had been shaky -- with an extra point and field goal blocked already in the game.
But the fake field goal was less than inspired. Holder Mike Scherpenberg took the ball up the middle and came up short. After Northern Illinois scored late in the fourth quarter to go up 21-20, you thought those special-teams miscues would come back to cost the RedHawks.
But redshirt freshman quarterback Austin Boucher would not be denied. On fourth-and-20 with time ticking down, he completed a 31-yard pass to Chris Givens. Northern Illinois got its hands on the ball and tipped it, and Givens was right there for the catch. After a sack, Northern Illinois sent the house at Boucher. Making a terrific read, he spotted a wide open Armand Robinson running loose, and hit him for the 33-yard touchdown reception with 33 seconds left, and the improbable 26-21 win.
Where else does the credit go? The Miami defense, which did an incredible job slowing down the top-rated Northern Illinois rushing attack. The RedHawks loaded the box and limited MAC Offensive Player of the Year Chad Spann to 54 yards on the ground. Northern Illinois had just 92 total yards rushing. With the running game taken away, Chandler Harnish was not nearly as effective, and that ended up costing the Huskies.
Boucher deserves his share of credit, too. He was making his third career start, filling in for starter Zac Dysert, out with a lacerated spleen. But Boucher showed the calm and poise of a veteran, throwing for 333 yards and not wilting under the intense pressure late in the game. How often do we see freshmen making the plays he made to win the game?
"I've imagined it so many times -- winning the game in the last minute," Boucher said.
For Northern Illinois, it was another heartbreaker in the MAC title game. In its last appearance in this contest in 2005, Akron beat the Huskies 31-30 with a 36-yard touchdown pass with 10 seconds remaining.
In a strange twist, Northern Illinois had one shot to win with the ball at the RedHawks' 32-yard line with 10 seconds left. But Harnish, scrambling to find an open receiver, never felt the pass rush coming at him and was sacked to end the game.
The Huskies had won nine straight, and garnered their first Top 25 ranking since 2003. “We’ll bounce back," coach Jerry Kill said. "They’ll go back to work and learn. This hurts, and it should hurt. That’s part of life -- you don’t win all the time. This is when you find out who you are.”
We know what Miami is -- incredibly, improbably MAC champion.
"What an unbelievable feeling," Robinson said. "You'd never think something like this would happen after a 1-11 season."