When the call came – in the second quarter of Tuesday’s match-up with No. 20 Toledo – Northern Illinois University redshirt freshman back-up quarterback Ryan Graham was ready.
With NIU starting signal-caller Drew Hare out with what would turn out to be a season-ending injury, Graham led the Huskies on a late touchdown drive to give NIU a 32-27 upset win over the Rockets in the Glass Bowl.
The win, NIU’s sixth straight over the previously undefeated Rockets, improved the Huskies’ record to 6-3 on the season, 4-1 in the MAC, and kept Northern Illinois in the MAC West race. Toledo fell to 7-1, 4-1 with the loss.
“We had guys step up,” said NIU Head Coach Rod Carey. “[When Drew went down], I said next guy up, it’s your turn. We put him in there, we let him get the blood flowing in the second quarter and he showed so much poise, it was great.”
“I prepared like I was going to play,” said Graham, a Wheaton Warrenville South product. “You take deep breaths, you play one play at a time and you have fun out there.”
It was never more fun than the fourth quarter, when Graham led the Huskies on a pair of touchdown drives to claim the win. With NIU trailing 27-19 following a 39-yard field goal by Toledo’s Jameson Vest with 13:45 to play, the Huskies drove 67 yards in 11 plays to pull within two points.
On the drive, Graham hit Kenny Golladay, who finished with 128 yards on eight catches in the game, on completions of 16 and 13 yards. After an apparent Toledo stop, NIU lined up Christian Hagan’s fifth field goal try, but a personal foul penalty on the Rockets kept the drive alive. On second and six from the seven, Graham lofted a ball to Golladay in the corner of the end zone. The junior, who was celebrating his 22nd birthday Tuesday, made a one-handed catch while dragging his foot and falling out of the end zone.
IU missed the two-point conversion to make the score 27-25 with 9:22 to play. Toledo then put together a drive to the NIU 30-yard line. When three plays netted just one yard, their 47-yard field goal attempt missed and the Huskies got the ball back with 5:19 to play.
Graham once again turned to Golladay, finding him at the first down marker on third and 12 and one play later, completing a 44-yard bomb to the speedy junior. From the 15-yard line, the Huskies used four Bouagnon rushes to get into the end zone and take its first lead of the game, 32-27.
The Rockets weren’t done, though, until NIU senior linebacker Boomer Mays, who finished with a team-high 10 tackles, intercepted UT quarterback Philip Ely on the Rockets’ first play, allowing the Huskies to run out the clock.
Graham finished the game 9-of-12 for 132 yards and a touchdown while running for 41 yards on 10 carries. He had played in just six of NIU’s previous games this season and thrown passes in only two games.
Graham entered the game with approximately seven minutes left in the second quarter after Hare went down on a non-contact injury and the Huskies trailing 17-10. On his first complete drive, which started after a Toledo nine-yard punt gave NIU the ball on the UT 19 yard-line, he led the team to the UT five and from there, Hagan made the second of his career-high four field goals on the night.
After a Brandon Mayes interception gave NIU the ball on the UT 21 before halftime, Graham again relied on the running of Bouagnon, who finished the game with 87 yards on 26 carries, to bring the Huskies in field goal range. On the last play of the half, Hagan hit from 29 yards and it was a one-point Toledo lead at halftime.
After surrendering 17 points in the first quarter, the Huskie defense buckled down and gave up just 10 points in the final three. NIU got a pair of interceptions and a fumble recovery by Juwaun Johnson.
NIU special teams contributed as well. Hagan’s 52-yard field goal at the close of the third quarter was a career long for the sophomore and tied for the second-longest in school history. He made a career-best four field goals on the day to keep NIU in the game throughout. Aregeros Turner averaged 33.8 yards on five kickoff returns to provide NIU with a field position edge, and punter Jake Ambrose had one of his most consistent days.
“It’s always a battle with Toledo,” Carey said. “This feels great. We’re extremely happy. This is a good win, we’re 6-3 and we have another opportunity to play in November.”
Early in the game, it looked like NIU and Toledo would recreate the 63-60 #MACtion classic from 2011. Toledo closed out a 12-play, 75-yard drive with an 11-yard completion from Ely to Alonzo Russell for a 7-0 UT lead, but NIU answered quickly. Hare hit Tommylee Lewis for a 67-yard touchdown pass two plays later to tie the score.
Toledo used just five plays to take a 14-7 lead as Kareem Hunt ran in from six yards out, and then extended the lead to 10 points on a Vest 39-yard field goal. Hare used the long ball again, connecting with Lewis on a 50-yard pass to the Toledo 20 yard line before the Huskies settled for a Hagan 36-yard field goal and a 17-10 first-quarter score.
Lewis left the game injured on the Huskies’ next possession after catching five passes for a career high 125 yards.
NIU hits the road again next week with a game at Buffalo on Wednesday, Nov. 11.