The Northern Illinois University Huskies got big plays on offense, defense and special teams to post its fifth straight win, 36-26, over Akron Thursday night, and in the process became bowl eligible for the tenth time in the last 11 years.
NIU (6-3, 5-0 MAC) rushed for 296 yards on 69 carries and quarterback Marcus Childers completed 21-of-28 passes for 188 yards, hitting a season-high eight receivers, to lead the Huskies to their best offensive output of the season in total yards (484) and points. Tre Harbison led the way with a career high 169 rushing yards for his third 100-yard day of the season.
Defensively, walk-on cornerback Jalen McKie intercepted two passes, returning his first career interception 23 yards for a touchdown with 9:05 to play in the fourth quarter. His INT turned the Huskies three-point lead into a 10-point margin, and he added a second pickoff on Akron’s last drive to seal the win. The Huskies totaled five sacks and eight tackles for loss while limiting the Zips to 35 rushing yards, the lowest total by an NIU opponent this season.
McKie combined with defensive tackle Ben LeRoy on the special teams play of the game. After Akron scored its second touchdown of the third quarter to pull within one point of NIU at 27-26, LeRoy blocked Akron kicker Nick Gasser’s PAT try and McKie took the ball on a bounce and ran it in for the two-point defensive PAT. With the play, NIU went from a potential game-tying PAT to a three-point lead at 29-26. It was the first defensive PAT for NIU since the 2003 win at Alabama.
“Ben LeRoy got the blocked kick, which was huge, and Jalen took it in and that was a big momentum swing,” said NIU head coach Rod Carey, who got his 50th win as Huskies’ head coach. “Instead of a tie game, you’re up by three.
“We’ve been successful with walk-ons and Jalen is no different,” Carey said. “They were picking on him early and he put his foot in the ground and said that’s enough. He’s been in the rotation all year and we have confidence in him and he made the plays tonight.”
After NIU took a 27-10 on the opening drive of the third quarter on Andrew Gantz’s 40-yard field goal, his second of the game, Akron stormed back with a field goal and two touchdowns in less than five minutes of game time, to get to 27-26 before LeRoy’s block.
Gasser hit a 25-yard field goal after McKie knocked down a Kato Nelson pass in the end zone with 7:16 to play in the quarter. After NIU went three and out on offense, Nelson led the Zips to a touchdown in just 1:18 with the help of a targeting call and unsportsmanlike penalty on NIU that provided 30 yards on the drive. Nelson hit Kwadarrius Smith from 13 yards out to bring Akron within seven points at 27-20 with 4:19 to play in the third period.
Next, Akron capitalized on an NIU mistake as Marcus Childers fumbled and the Zips’ Davon’te Jest recovered at the NIU 8. Two plays later, back-up quarterback Alex Ramart connected with Smith for a six-yard score to make it 27-26, NIU with 2:54 on the clock.
“Any road victory in conference is a good win,” Carey said. “We ran the ball really effectively and stopped the run. The key to the game was the line of scrimmage. Both running backs played well, making cuts and playing physical. They have been solid all year. Offensively, we played well for two-and-a-half quarters so we still have some work to do, and the defense showed some holes but we’ll get that addressed.”
The Huskies put 17 points on the board in the second quarter for its most productive 15 minutes of the year. After a pass interference call in the end zone, Tre Harbison scored from two yards out to put the Huskies ahead 14-7 with 14:11 to play in the quarter. The rush completed a 10-play, 75-yard drive that took 3:59 off the clock.
The teams traded field goals on their next two drives with Akron’s Nick Gasser hitting from 27 yards out and NIU’s Andrew Gantz responding with a 30-yard three-pointer for a 17-10 Huskie lead.
The Huskie defense forced a three-and-out on the Zips’ next possession and NIU used the rushing of Harbison to drive from its 35 to the Akron 32. A four-yard pick-up from Marcus Jones and a pass interference call in the end zone led to a five-yard touchdown run by Spencer Tears on the jet sweep, extending the Huskies’ lead to 24-10.
NIU got the ball back after a stop and drove from its 26 to the Akron 31, where Gantz’ 48-yard field goal attempt was wide left. In the half, Childers completed 17-of-19 passes for 141 yards and Harbison carried 14 times for 122 yards.
NIU got off to a quick start on its first offensive possession of the game, driving 85 yards in eight plays and 2:45 for a touchdown, the first time the Huskies have scored on their opening drive this season. Childers hit Corey Lersch, who scored his first career touchdown, from 19 yards out for the score with 9:27 to play in the first quarter.
Akron drove to the Huskie 32-yard line on its next possession, but a sack by NIU’s Sutton Smith forced a 49-yard field goal try which was missed. They had more success on their next possession, after the NIU offense went three and out. Quarterback Kato Nelson completed passes of 14, 13, 24 and 22 yards with the final completion to Andre Williams tying the score at 7-7 with 3:10 to play in the first quarter.
Akron quarterback Kato Nelson passed for 299 yards on 18-of-26 passing before going down with an injury late in the third quarter.