MT. PLEASANT, Mich. (WTVO/WQRF) [NIU news release]– True freshman kicker Kanon Woodill kicked a 26-yard field goal with 54 seconds to play as the Northern Illinois University Huskies overcame an 18-point deficit to defeat Central Michigan, 39-38, for its sixth win of the season. After a winless (0-6) 2020 campaign, the Huskies earned bowl eligibility, improving to 6-2 on the year while remaining the only undefeated team in conference play (4-0).
“What a tremendous win for the Huskies,” said NIU head coach Thomas Hammock, whose team has now won five straight games. “We knew CMU was a good football team with a good defensive front. We knew it would be tough to run and we knew we had to have the ability to throw the ball. We worked all week on the passing game, we made it a point of emphasis, to get better. We have tremendous confidence in our quarterback, tremendous confidence in our receivers. Rocky [Lombardi] executed at a high level. Our receivers made plays for him and that’s a team game.”
Quarterback Rocky Lombardi threw for 320 yards on 16-of-26 passing with three touchdowns, connecting with Trayvon Rudolph six times for 160 yards and two scores while Tyrice Richie caught eight passes for 147 yards and a touchdown. A week after gaining 210 yards on 33 carries, freshman tailback Jay Ducker gained 183 yards rushing on 31 carries for a 5.9-yard average.
Woodill, a true freshman from Plainfield, Illinois who found out on Thursday that he would be making his debut for the Huskies versus CMU, made all three of his field goal attempts – from 26, 24 and 26 yards – with his game-winner coming at the end of a 12-play, 62-yard drive. On the drive, Trayvon Rudolph ran for seven yards on fourth and one and Ducker put the Huskies in field goal range one play later with a 26-yard run to the CMU 17. Three more Ducker runs put the ball at the CMU eight and Woodill was true from the left hashmark.
“[Kanon] did a great job,” Hammock said. “We talk about the next man up at all positions. We had complete confidence in him. We don’t recruit players not to play. I told the team on Friday, we recruit you with the intention you are going to play. Kanon has worked hard; we had confidence that he would make the kick and he did his job.”
Following Woodill’s final kick, CMU drove from their 26-yard line to the NIU 22 and lined up for a game-winning field goal attempt with seven seconds left. But Franklin Lama’s snap skipped past holder Luke Elzinga and NIU’s Jordan Gandy recovered to preserve the win and NIU’s undefeated Mid-American Conference record.
CMU used a pair of long plays to build a 21-10 lead in the first 17 minutes of the game, opening the scoring with a 66-yard run by Lew Nichols and getting a 72-yard pass completion from quarterback Daniel Richardson to Kalil Pimpleton early in the second quarter. NIU got on the scoreboard at the 7:48 mark of the opening stanza on a 21-yard pass from Lombardi to Richie, who spun his way into the end zone for his first touchdown of the year to cap a 12-play, 75-yard drive.
With 4:59 to play in the first half, CMU extended its lead to 28-10 on a 22-yard pass from Richardson to JaCorey Sullivan. The Huskies responded, moving 51 yards in 11 plays. Lombardi connected with Rudolph on a 15-yard score and then Rudolph, a high school quarterback at Crete-Monee High School, threw a two-point conversion pass to Tristen Tewes as NIU pulled within 10 points, 28-18, at halftime.
After the Huskies were stopped on fourth down at their 45-yard line on their first drive of the second half, CMU took advantage of a short field to extend their lead to 35-18 with Richardson hitting tight end Joel Wilson for the four-yard score on fourth and goal. It was the Chippewas’ last touchdown of the day.
CMU’s 17-point margin did not last long. On the first play of the ensuing drive, Lombardi connected with Rudolph over the middle and the speedy freshman split the safeties and outran a trio of defenders to the end zone for a 75-yard score, the longest receiving TD of his career. Lombardi connected with Miles Joiner on the two-points play and NIU was within nine at 35-26 with 9:43 to play in the third quarter.
The Huskie defense forced a three and out and NIU drove 50 yards in 14 plays where Woodill cut the deficit to six, 35-29, with a 24-yard three as the third quarter came to a close.
After another defensive stop, NIU took its first lead of the game with 10:45 to play on a one-yard run by Clint Ratkovich that came two plays after Lombardi hit Richie for a 50-yard completion to the two-yard line.
“Our defense and our defensive coaches made some great adjustments at halftime,” Hammock said. “We knew they were an explosive offense. I loved the fight, the competitiveness of the defensive group.”
Central Michigan responded with an 11-play, 56-yard drive and took their last lead on Marshall Meeder’s 38-yard field goal with 6:01 on the clock.
NIU earned its first win in Mt. Pleasant since 2013. Five of the Huskies’ eight games have been decided by seven points or less, and NIU has won three games by two points or less this year.