Central Michigan took advantage of four Northern Illinois University turnovers, including three in the third quarter, to score 26 second-half points en route to a 29-19 Mid-American Conference victory over NIU at Kelly/Shorts Stadium in Mount Pleasant Saturday.
NIU (2-3, 0-1 MAC) has lost three games in a row, its first three-game losing streak since the end of the 2009 season when the Huskies lost to Ohio (Nov. 21) and Central Michigan (Nov. 27) to close out the regular season and then fell to South Florida (Jan. 2) in the International Bowl in the season finale.
“Anytime you lose the turnover battle the way we did, you’re going to have a tough time winning,” said NIU Head Coach Rod Carey. “Overall, I thought we played good on defense. We ran the ball fine today, not great, but fairly well. The ball was wet and [quarterback] Drew [Hare] struggled with ball-handling. If you give them a -point third quarter and put our defense in some of the situations we did with the short fields, it’s not going to be good.”
Hare was charged with all three of the Huskie fumbles on a wet, windy and cold day in Mt. Pleasant that felt more like early November than October 3rd. NIU’s four turnovers were the team’s most in 47 games, since the 2011 MAC Championship game versus Ohio, a game NIU came back to win, 23-20.
NIU charged out to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter. The Huskies’ first touchdown was set up by Shawun Lurry’s fifth interception of the season, and his fourth in the last three games. The sophomore stepped in front of a Cooper Rush pass and returned it to the CMU 23-yard line. From there, NIU used five plays to advance to the CMU 1 with running back Joel Bouagnon recording the rushing score with 9:17 left in the quarter. It was the last touchdown the Huskies would score until the fourth quarter.
NIU added to its lead on its next possession as Chad Beebe’s career-long 40-yard punt return gave the Huskie offense field position at the CMU 31-yard line. The Huskies advanced to the 16 and from there, Christian Hagan’s 32-yard field goal was good for a 10-0 NIU advantage.
CMU (2-3, 1-0 MAC) could manage only a 44-yard field goal by Brian Eavey the rest of the half, but the Huskie offense could not take advantage. Hagan missed a 48-yard field goal at the end of the quarter. Two NIU possessions later, the Huskies drove to the CMU one-yard line on an 11-play, 46-yard drive, but on fourth-and-goal, Bouagnon lost three yards and NIU was unable to increase its lead.
NIU’s third-quarter turnover problems began with a Hare fumble on the first drive of the half, giving the Chippewas field position at the Huskie 16-yard line. Three plays later, CMU quarterback Cooper Rush hit Jesse Kroll for the nine-yard touchdown, and the PAT tied the score at 10.
The Huskies answered with an eight-play, 29-yard drive that ended with a 26-yard field goal by Hagan and a 13-10 NIU lead.
Central Michigan drove from its 30 to the NIU eight before its next drive stalled, and Eavey’s 28-yard field goal tied the score with 6:43 to play in the third quarter.
Hare fumbled on a handoff miscue at the NIU 23 and after CMU’s Tim Hamilton recovered the ball, Rush hit Kroll for 23 yards and Central Michigan took its first lead of the game, 20-13.
Back-up Ryan Graham came out for the next NIU possession and after an incompletion, he was intercepted by Hamilton at the NIU 31-yard line. Two plays after a 22-yard completion took CMU to the NIU nine-yard line, Chippewas running back Jahray Hayes scored from four yards out. The PAT was no good and CMU took a 26-13 lead into the final period.
Central Michigan’s string of 29-straight points scored ended with another Eavey field goal, this one from 41 yards out, with 13:31 to play. It ended an eight-play, 30-yard drive and made the score 29-13.
The Huskies showed life with a 13-play, 65-yard touchdown drive that featured the running of Bouagnon and Hare. Bouagnon finished the game with 104 yards on 26 carries and two touchdowns after finishing the drive with a three-yard score on fourth and goal. NIU’s two-point attempt was no good and with 8:46 to play, NIU trailed 29-19.
NIU’s defense continued to give the offense a chance, forcing the Chippewas into back-to-back three-and-outs in the fourth quarter. The offense couldn’t advance past the CMU 37 in three possessions in the fourth quarter.
“We’re going to get in the film room and go to work, correct our mistakes and get better,” Carey said.
After playing three consecutive games on the road, NIU returns to Huskie Stadium Saturday to play host to Ball State on Hall of Fame Weekend. Kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m. (CT)