The Northern Illinois University Huskies were unable to stop UAB’s big play combination of Tyler Johnston to Xavier Ubosi as the pair hooked up for three long touchdowns, including a 70-yard completion on the first play of the game, and went on to a 37-13 win over NIU in the Cheribundi Boca Raton Bowl at FAU Stadium.
With the loss, NIU finishes the season with an 8-6 record, while UAB improves to 11-3.
The game got off to an inauspicious start for NIU when UAB quarterback Johnson hit Ubosi for a 70-yard touchdown on the first play from scrimmage. It would be a harbinger of things to come for the Huskies as Ubosi added touchdown catches of 46 and 66 yards in the second and third quarters, respectively. Ubosi finished with Cheribundi Boca Bowl game records of seven catches for 227 yards, while Johnston completed 17-of-29 passes for 373 yards and four TDs.
UAB also got three field goals from kicker Nick Vogel as he hit from 25, 35 and 42 yards in each of the first three quarters, respectively.
“We gave up 21 points on three ‘go’ balls – three deep balls,” said NIU head coach Rod Carey. “Without those, it’s a 16-13 game in the fourth quarter and I like our chances. It was just backyard football, they ran by us a couple times and we fell once. The bottom line is it wasn’t good enough. We didn’t coach good enough, we didn’t play good enough. We have to own it. Only 13 points, that’s not winning football.
“It’s tough to see these seniors leave like this. It’s a special group of seniors and it hurts to end their careers on this one. They went from seeing us win a conference championship in 2014 to not making a bowl game in 2016 to returning to a bowl last year to winning the MAC this year and that’s not easy to do.”
Nineteen seniors finished their NIU careers, including offensive tackle Max Scharping, who started 53 consecutive games – every game of his Huskie career – at tackle.
Sophomores Tre Harbison and Marcus Childers both reached milestones offensively as Harbison surpassed the 1,000-yard mark in rushing yards for the season, becoming the first Huskie to do so since 2015 with 18 carries for 49 yards. He finished the year with 1,034 yards on 206 carries.
Childers set a Cheribundi Boca Raton Bowl record by completing 76 percent of his passes in the game (22-of-29) for 179 yards, but was sacked five times. Junior Spencer Tears caught six passes for 50 yards, while senior tight end Ty Harmston totaled a career-best 36 receiving yards on three catches.
Harbison scored the Huskies’ lone touchdown on a one-yard run with 30 seconds to play in the first quarter, cutting the Blazers’ lead to 10-7. It was as close as NIU would get. UAB came back with an eight-play, 54-yard drive with Johnson completing a three-yard shovel pass to Spencer Brown on third and goal for the score with 12:08 to play in the second quarter.
NIU responded with a field goal before Johnson hit Ubosi for the 46-yard score. That play came two plays after NIU was called for running into the kicker on a UAB punt, turning a fourth-and-six into a fourth-and-one. After converting the fourth down with a two-yard run, the Blazers converted for the touchdown. They added a field goal as time expired after Childers fumbled at the NIU 41-yard line, as UAB led 27-10 at halftime.
They added 10 points in the third quarter, while NIU could manage just a second field goal from Gantz, this from 21 yards, after an NIU drive stalled inside the 10. Neither team scored in the fourth quarter with NIU getting a Mykelti Williams interception to stop one UAB drive.
The Huskies, who came into the game leading the nation in sacks, were unable to get to Johnston but did record six tackles for loss, led by Sutton Smith and Quintin Wynne with two each. Antonio Jones-Davis made 11 tackles to finish with 130 for the season, giving him the most by a Huskie since Brian Atkinson made 137 stops in 2004.