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NIU staves off Ball State for key MAC win

Updated: November 15, 2011 11:57PM

DEKALB — Opposing Mid-American Conference defenses can’t seem to stop Chandler Harnish and his Northern Illinois offense, they can only hope to contain them.

Ball State did it for about a half Tuesday, but the fifth-year senior quarterback got untracked in the second half and accounted for 519 total yards in rallying the Huskies from 17 points down to claim a 41-38 victory. It came on Mathew Sims’ 34-yard field goal with eight seconds remaining in regulation.

“What a night,” gushed NIU coach Dave Doeren after his team won its sixth straight. “I thought, just like the Toledo game (a 63-60 win), both teams played to win and left it on the field.”

But as good as his league-leading offense was, Doeren noted, “The defense held them to 3-of-14 on third down conversions and that was the difference in the game.”

On a night when the Huskies were guilty of five personal fouls that proved costly, and were flagged for nine infractions for 107 yards, it was a critical roughing-the-passer penalty against the visitors that kept a late drive alive. That led to a 23-yard Sims field goal that rallied Northern from a 38-35 deficit to tie the game with 2:46 remaining.

“We can’t have plays after the whistle and out of bounds that hurt us like that,” said Doeren.

Northern got the ball back with 1:44 remaining on its own 20 and drove to the Cardinals’ 17 to set up Sims’ game-winner.

NIU maintained control of its destiny in the race for a Mid-American Conference West Division title. At 8-3 overall and 6-1 in the league, the Huskies can assure themselves a return trip to Detroit for the MAC Championship game with a win over visiting Eastern Michigan (10 a.m., ESPNU) in the regular season finale Nov. 25.

“We have a lot to learn and a long way to go to become a program like the one we just played,” said first-year Ball State coach Pete Lembo, whose club fell to 6-5 and 4-3. “We didn’t make enough plays down the stretch.”

Harnish completed 23-of-43 passes for 245 yards and two touchdowns and rushed 28 times for 181 yards, becoming the school’s all-time leader in TD passes (62) and all-time leader in rushing yardage (2,807) for a quarterback. He passed George Bork (60 TD passes, 1960-63) and Stacey Robinson (1988-90). Harnish is the school’s ninth all-time leading rusher.

“He rarely makes bad decisions, he’s a very smart football player and a true general. When he does make a mistake, if he does, you need to capitalize,” said Ball State safety Joshua Howard, who returned an early Harnish fumble 92 yards for a score.

The Cardinals led 31-14 in the third quarter before Harnish led his team to 21 straight points for a 38-35 lead. It included his 49-yard TD run, an 11-yard scoring run by Jasmin Hopkins (18-122) and a 27-yard scoring pass to Nathan Palmer, who lost an earlier fumble.

Before reeling off that long run with 8:27 left in the third quarter, the dual-threat quarterback had been held to just 11 yards rushing on 13 carries.

“You never expect to fumble,” said Harnish. “I thought I was holding the ball high and tight. I may have tried to too much early on and was trying to be a little cool.”

Northern finished with 43 first downs and 710 total yards, the second time this season the team has put up the program’s second-best total, topped only by the 806 against Fresno State in 1990. The Huskies had 697 against Western Michigan.

“When you turn it over, you can’t turn it over for points. All you try to do is respond. It took us a half but we did,” said Doeren.

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