NIU wants payback in MAC title game

All offseason, they thought about it.

All spring, they thought about it.

All summer, they thought about it.

Northern Illinois had to get back to the MAC title game, had to make up for the heartbreak of last season.

The Huskies were on a nine-game winning streak and riding high with a Top 25 ranking when they faced Miami (Ohio) in the championship game in 2010. They were a big favorite to win, with Chandler Harnish at quarterback and league MVP Chad Spann at running back.

But somehow, the RedHawks pulled out an improbable 26-21 win after Austin Boucher threw a 33-yard touchdown pass to Armand Robinson with 33 seconds left. Linebacker Pat Schiller admitted earlier this week the Huskies flat-out underestimated the underdog.

"After we lost," Schiller said, "I realized to never underestimate your opponent, especially in a championship game."

Now the Huskies are back in the MAC title game, facing Ohio tonight (7 p.m., ESPN2) with lessons learned from 2010.

"This is what it all comes down to, this is where my legacy's going to be left," Harnish said earlier this week. "We have a lot of unfinished business. We're trying to avenge some bad demons that happened to us last year. This is what we've been focused on all year, as a senior class this is what it's all riding on."

First-year coach Dave Doeren said he never mentioned Detroit -- site of the title game -- to his team. But he did not have to, because his players mentioned it for him. Their primary motivation this season has been to win a ring.

"Last year in one word it was a heart breaker," Harnish said. "We can look back and say we didn't run the ball very well and running the ball is a big part of our offense and we weren't able to do that. I don't think we were ourselves. We didn't play with that normal energy. We gave Miami a chance to play with us and they took advantage. We need to be ourselves and bring that energy and not take anything for granted."

Indeed, "heart breaker" is the word to describe what has happened to Northern Illinois in the MAC title game. In its only other appearance in the game, Akron beat the Huskies 31-30 on a 36-yard touchdown pass with 10 seconds remaining in 2005.

So the Huskies not only have something to prove for themselves, but for the program. They have got to find a way to win a championship.

"If we can do something like that, expectations for this university will definitely increase and it helps with recruiting and things like that," Harnish said. "We feel like we have a direct impact on history but we have to go take it. It's not going to be given to us. We have to play our best football, but we can definitely have a great impact on the future of this program."

Harnish already has, with his record-setting senior season. He won the Vern Smith Leadership Award and MAC Offensive Player of the Year after rushing for 1,351 yards and passing for another 2,692 yards this season to set a single-season school record for total offense. He will finish his career with 13 school career offensive records.

But his leadership was huge after Northern Illinois dropped to 2-3 following a 48-41 loss to Central Michigan -- one of the worst teams in the MAC. Doeren told the players that from then on, they needed to view the season as a playoff. They took those words to heart, especially Harnish, who nearly quit the team last season after he lost his starting job.

The wins that followed may not have been pretty, but a 63-60 victory over Toledo essentially allowed them to win the West. They closed the season with seven straight wins.

In the East, the Bobcats closed the season with five straight wins and also rely heavily on their running quarterback, Tyler Tettleton, who has 3,444 total yards and 34 touchdowns this season. Ohio set nine team records this season, including scoring, total offense and passing yards.

With the way Harnish and Tettleton are playing right now, this one may end up being decided by one of them. After what happened last season, Harnish would relish that opportunity.