Football: Ohio crumbles, Northern Illinois wins MAC Championship

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Just like that, the lead was gone.

Just like that, the dream was gone.

Ohio led by 20 points at halftime, but Northern Illinois stormed back to win the Mid-American Conference football championship 23-20 on a last-second field goal.

The 'Cats have to be wondering when the nightmare will end.

After getting every big break (and every small one) in the first half, everything went wrong for Ohio in the second 30 minutes.

"We had plenty of chances," head coach Frank Solich said. "Just did not play well enough with those chances to make it work for us in that second half."

"Pretty shocked," senior linebacker Noah Keller said. "We didn't play our best ball in the second half."

NIU's Chandler Harnish – a Walter Camp Award semi-finalist – led the Huskies (10-3) back from three first-half turnovers to win Northern's first MAC Championship since 1983. Harnish finished with 250 yards passing and three touchdowns – all in the second half and two to Most Valuable Player Nathan Palmer.

Great plays by Husky wide-receivers, blown coverages by Ohio's secondary, missed field goals, dropped passes. You name it, Ohio saw it in the second half.

But it had chances, like Solich said, to put the game away, and Ohio didn't capitalize.

With just over 13 minutes left in the fourth quarter and Ohio leading 20-7, Tyler Tettleton and the offense faced a third down. The Bobcat quarterback threw into double coverage – something that became a trend in the sophomore's first MAC title game appearance – and LaVon Brazill had a sure touchdown in his hands but dropped the ball.

On the next play, Ohio's kicker Matt Weller – named MAC Special Teams Player of the Year – missed from 36 yards to turn the ball over. Weller hadn't missed from inside 40 yards in 2011.

Just moments later – or at least it seemed like it in a lightning-fast fourth quarter – Harnish threw a touchdown to Marcel Moore, which would have made the Bobcat lead six points. Instead, Sims missed the extra point and Ohio led by seven.

That was one of many times in which Northern Illinois attempted to hand Ohio the title.

Instead, the Cats went three-and-out and were forced to punt. On the punt attempt, Northern Illinois jumped offsides and gave Ohio a first down.

Again, the Huskies handed it over on a Green and White platter.

But with a chance to milk more time off the clock, Ohio ran the ball once and threw two incompletions to stop the clock and gave NIU the ball back with 4:45 to play.

"There was a point there where we weren't able to get some drives going," Solich said. "That was disturbing.

To make matters worse, Ohio punter Paul Hershey shanked the punt 12 yards and out of bounds. The Huskies were looking at just 57 yards of green turf between it and a game-tying touchdown.

It didn't take long.

Harnish hit Palmer for a touchdown to tie the game with two minutes remaining.

With the game tied at 20 with two minutes left – and Tettleton possibly woozy from a helmet-hitting-the-ground play on the previous drive – Ohio's offense once again was forced to punt and gave the Huskies the ball back with less than 1:30 to play.

Harnish hit Palmer for a long first down in front of Ohio cornerback Omar Leftwich, who guessed Palmer was running deep on the play and instead got burned inside.

Forty-three years of championship frustration came flooding back to the Bobcat side of the Ford Field seats.

A few plays later, with five seconds remaining, Sims knocked through a 33-yard field goal to win NIU the game.

"I can't tell you how much pain there is in our program to not win it for 28 years," NIU first-year head coach Dave Doeren said. "It wasn't just for them, it was for all the former guys.