9-4, 6-2 Conf

Northern Illinois erases 20-point halftime deficit to win MAC title

DETROIT -- When Dave Doeren took over as the coach at Northern Illinois last December, the Huskies were coming off a heartbreaking loss in the Mid-American Conference title game.

A year later, they've come full circle.

Chandler Harnish threw two of his three touchdown passes in the final quarter, and Mathew Sims kicked a 33-yard field goal on the last play to cap a furious rally that gave Northern Illinois a 23-20 victory over Ohio in the MAC championship game Friday night. The Huskies trailed 20-0 before coming back strong in the second half.

"This is something we've fought for as a program since I've been here," said Doeren, a former Wisconsin assistant who took over at Northern Illinois when coach Jerry Kill left to take the Minnesota job late last year. "This team lost this game a year ago, and then they lost their coach, but there was no flinching today."

It was a delightful turnabout for Northern Illinois, which lost in the 2010 and 2005 MAC title games on last-minute touchdowns by Miami of Ohio and Akron. Last year's defeat was particularly cruel. Miami converted on fourth-and-20 before scoring the winning touchdown.

This was the first MAC championship for Northern Illinois (10-3) since 1983.

"I said yesterday that this is where the senior class was going to leave its legacy, but I was terrible in the first half," Harnish said. "I didn't want to go out like that."

Ohio hasn't won a MAC title since 1968, but the Bobcats are still one of six teams from the conference that are bowl eligible. The league has primary agreements with the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, the GoDaddy.com Bowl and the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.

Ohio (9-4) led 20-7 in the fourth quarter, but Harnish threw a 32-yard touchdown pass to Martel Moore, then a 22-yarder to Nathan Palmer to tie it with 2:52 left.

"We had plenty of chances, we just didn't do enough with them in the second half," Ohio coach Frank Solich said. "All three phases of the game had some kind of collapse in the second half. We didn't do anything as well as we needed to do."

Sims, who missed an extra point earlier in the fourth, redeemed himself after Harnish moved the Huskies into range for the winning kick.

Harnish went 16 of 26 for 250 yards and three touchdowns, helping Northern Illinois win its eighth straight game. The Huskies overcame four turnovers.

Ohio's Tyler Tettleton, the son of former major league catcher Mickey Tettleton, went 18 of 31 for 218 yards with three interceptions. He also ran for a touchdown, but his final interception -- with 8:49 to play -- set the stage for the Northern Illinois comeback.

Harnish needed only four plays to cut into the lead, and Moore's touchdown catch made it 20-13. Sims missed the extra point, but when the Huskies got the ball back, they went 57 yards in six plays to tie it.

A mishap on a shotgun snap cost Ohio 12 yards, and after the Bobcats punted, Northern Illinois took over on its own 36 with 1:18 to play. Perez Ashford leaped backward to make a terrific catch for a 27-yard gain, and Harnish found Moore for 15 yards to the Ohio 19.

After that, it was just a question of lining up Sims for the winning kick.

"I knew I wasn't going to let my team down twice," Sims said. "I just lost my focus on the extra point, but I was ready for that field goal."

Ohio had a five-game winning streak snapped.

Bobcats defensive lineman Corey Hasting was ejected early in the third quarter when officials said he threw a punch during a scramble for a Northern Illinois fumble. The Bobcats recovered that ball but couldn't extend their lead, and Harnish found Palmer for a 39-yard touchdown to make it 20-7.

Northern Illinois caught a break in the fourth quarter when Matt Weller missed a 36-yard field goal, his first miss of the season from inside 40. Still, Ohio wasn't in too much trouble until Tettleton's deep pass over the middle was picked off by Jimmie Ward at the Northern Illinois 37 for the game's seventh and final turnover.

Tettleton was aggressive at the start, throwing a 44-yard pass to LaVon Brazill on the first snap of the game. The Bobcats didn't score on that possession -- Tettleton was intercepted in the end zone -- but they got the ball back in good field position when Harnish's pass went through the hands of Da'Ron Brown and was intercepted by Noah Keller.

It was Harnish's first interception in six games, and Weller opened the scoring with a 30-yard field goal.

The Bobcats reached the end zone with a little trickery on their next possession. Ohio ran two reverses on the same drive, but the second turned into a reverse pass when Phil Bates found Donte Foster for a 24-yard touchdown.

Harnish was held to minus-2 yards passing in the first quarter, and his second-quarter fumble ended the Huskies' only solid drive of the first half. Ohio took advantage, driving 87 yards in nine plays and taking a 20-0 lead when Tettleton dropped back, avoided a possible sack, then ran up the middle through the Northern Illinois defense for an 18-yard touchdown.