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NIU to face Ohio U. in MAC championship

Northern Illinois' prolific quarterback Chandler Harnish will lead Huskies against Ohio University Bobcats Friday MAC championship game Ford Field Detroit.

Northern Illinois' prolific quarterback Chandler Harnish will lead the Huskies against the Ohio University Bobcats Friday in the MAC championship game at Ford Field in Detroit. | Jeremy Wadsworth~AP

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Mac Championship

Ohio University vs. Northern Illinois

Friday 6 p.m. at Ford Field, Detroit.

Television: ESPN2. Radio: WSCR-670 AM.

Records: Ohio 9-3, 6-2 MAC East; NIU 9-3, 7-1 MAC West.

Story line: Something’s got to give. It’s Northern’s second straight trip to the MAC title game and third in seven years. It’s the Bobcats’ second in three years and third in six. Neither team has won in Detroit.

The line: Northern by 3½ .

Rick Armstrong’s pick: NIU 31, Ohio 27

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Updated: January 3, 2012 8:56AM

DEKALB — Pat Schiller thinks he and his Northern Illinois teammates have learned their lesson.

“We can’t underestimate any opponent, whatsoever,” said the senior middle linebacker from Geneva. “Last year, I think we underestimated Miami of Ohio.”

The 17½-point underdog Redhawks made the Huskies pay, converting a fourth-and-20 late in the game to keep a drive alive, then scoring with 33 seconds remaining to claim a 26-21 decision in the Mid-American Conference Championship.

“We had a lot of success coming into that game,” continued Schiller. “The spread of the point difference of the teams we beat wasn’t even close. We were really running through the conference (to a perfect 8-0 record).

“And when we compared scores (against common opponents), we figured we should have no problem. After we lost, I realized, you never underestimate an opponent, especially in a championship game.”

Schiller and the Huskies (9-3, 7-1) earned the right to return to Detroit and Ford Field and meet Ohio University (9-3, 6-2) Friday at 6 p.m. in this year’s title game by repeating as MAC West champs.

It wasn’t quite as easy as the year before, however.

In 2010, NIU outscored eight MAC opponents by 255 points (382-127) for an average of 31.8 points per game. While they have played some wild, high-scoring “video game” contests — most notably a 63-60 win over Toledo on national television — this year’s team has outscored league foes by 96 points (330-234), for a 12.8 average.

“I see guys watching more and more film,” said Schiller. “The way we’ve gone through this conference schedule, winning by 1 point and 3 points (twice) and having a few other tight games, we know we can’t take wins for granted. We definitely need to treat Ohio with a whole lot of respect.”

Coach Frank Solich’s Bobcats have had their share of close calls this year, too.

The Bobcats have outscored league opposition by only 47 points (239-192), a 5.9-point average. Six of their eight league games have been decided by seven points or less.

Five of NIU’s MAC games have been decided by seven points or less. The Huskies enter riding a seven-game winning streak while OU has won five straight.

“We started (league play) 1-2 but did a great job of bouncing back,” Solich said. “Down the stretch, we’ve been involved in a lot of close games but these guys have found ways to win. They’re a confident group, but they understand what’s waiting for them.

“(Northern) has one of the best quarterbacks I’ve seen this year (in senior Chandler Harnish). And they’re a senior-laden team on the offensive side. They’ve been able to score a ton of points. We have to figure a way to slow them down, some.

“If we go three-and-out much, we’re in for a long, long evening.”

Harnish named MAC MVP

Northern Illinois quarterback Chandler Harnish has won the Mid-American Conference’s Vern Smith Leadership Award for the league MVP.

The senior quarterback was joined by four teammates in receiving All-MAC first-team honors. Nine Huskies, overall, were honored on the team, selected by league coaches.

“I’m still having trouble processing it,” Harnish said. “I am so proud that an NIU player has won this award in five of the last six years, and to be recognized with them and be the first Huskie quarterback since Tim Tyrrell (1983) to win this award is an awesome feeling.”

Previous Northern winners were running back Garrett Wolfe in 2006, defensive end Larry English in 2007 and 2008 and running back Chad Spann last year.

Repeat first-teamers on offense were two seniors, center Scott Wedige and left tackle Trevor Olson. Olson has started 52 consecutive games in his career and has not given up a sack this season.

They were joined by sophomore kicker Mathew Sims, who has made 18 of 23 field goals and 57 of 58 PATs and leads Northern with a school-record 111 points this season.

Earning second-team honors were wide receiver Perez Ashford, tailback Jasmin Hopkins, defensive end Sean Progra and safety Jimmie Ward. NIU leading receiver Nathan Palmer was a third-team selection.

“When you are on a winning team, you are going to have guys that get rewarded,” first-year coach Dave Doeren said. “The guys that were second and third team were certainly deserving and played a big role on our team. I think our offensive line deserved more than we got.”

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