ORLANDO, Fla. (WTVO/WQRF) [NIU News Release]– The 2021 Northern Illinois University Huskies fell just seconds short of pulling out another last second victory as time expired with NIU on the Coastal Carolina eight-yard line and the Huskies fell to the Chanticleers, 47-41, in the Tailgreeter Cure Bowl.

With the bowl loss, the Mid-American Conference Champion Huskies finished the season 9-5 just one year after going winless (0-6) with the second-youngest team in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Coastal Carolina posted a 11-2 final record.

“All you can ask for from your team is to give it everything you’ve got,” said NIU head coach Thomas Hammock, the MAC Coach of the Year. “I thought they did that, they laid it on the line for 60 minutes and gave us a chance. I couldn’t be prouder of this team. I’m just happy as a head coach to be here with this group of men.”

NIU led 41-33 after John Richardson hit a 45-yard field goal with 11:51 to play, tying the Huskies’ largest lead of the game. 

Coastal Carolina came back with a six-play, 64-yard drive in 2:44 with CCU quarterback Grayson McCall – while under pressure – connecting with All-America tight end Isaiah Likely who made an outstanding catch of a ball off his shoe tops and took it 40 yards for a score. NIU’s Jordan Gandy broke up the two-point conversion pass and the Huskies led 41-39 with 9:07 to play.

On third and one on NIU’s next possession, quarterback Rocky Lombardi was stopped short and when Clint Ratkovich took a direct snap on the next play, the Huskies failed to convert on fourth down for the first time in 14 tries and CCU took over on the NIU 34.  It took the Chanticleers just one play to take the lead as McCall pitched the ball forward to tailback Braydon Bennett on the option and the tailback went 34 yards to the end zone. The conversion pass to Likely was good, giving Coastal a 47-41 lead with 6:40 to play.

NIU appeared to be on one of its patented game-winning drives with Lombardi completing passes to Cole Tucker and Miles Joiner. On third and 14, Lombardi scrambled for 13 yards, but was hit and fumbled. Coastal Carolina recovered and with 3:21 to play, took over on their 44-yard line.

The Huskie defense stepped up, forcing a punt and NIU had one last chance for a game-winning score.  Starting from their own 13-yard line with 2:29 to play, Lombardi completed nine of 12 passes including a 23-yarder to Tucker on fourth and four, and a 15-yard completion to tailback Jay Ducker on third and five.  A seven-yard completion to Messiah Travis to the 10-yard line proved costly when the receiver went down on the play, costing the Huskies 10 precious seconds due to a runoff.

Lombardi then hit Joiner for two yards and, after an incompletion, for four yards. With just two seconds on the clock, time expired before NIU could get another snap off, ending the drive and the season.

“We turned the ball over once, we got stopped on fourth down and that gave them momentum,” Hammock said. “[Coastal Carolina] made plays. That’s a good football team and we didn’t make enough plays.”

NIU ran 88 plays and gained 516 yards of total offense in the game, including a season-high 335 rushing. The Huskies did not punt in the game. Freshman Jay Ducker ran for 146 yards on 24 carries and Antario Brown added 105 yards on 12 carries. Brown, fullback Clint Ratkovich and Lombardi all scored rushing TDs, while Lombardi had touchdown passes to Tucker and Joiner.

Tucker finished with six catches for 87 yards, while Joiner caught a season high five passes. Lombardi completed passes to nine different receivers and threw for 181 yards on 20-of-33 passing.

McCall threw for 315 yards on 22-of-30 passing with four touchdowns. 

There were seven lead changes and just one punt in the game. The Huskies scored on the opening drive after an 11-play, 75-yard drive when Lombardi hit Tucker on fourth and goal from the five for a score. NIU led 10-6 at the end of the first quarter and 24-19 at halftime. 

Coastal Carolina used long plays, including a 40-yard pass from McCall to Aaron Bedgood and completions of 27 and 40 yards to Likely, as well as the 34-yard forward pitch to Bennett, to score their points, while the Huskies again controlled the clock with 39:20 time of possession.