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FINAL SCORE: Northern Illinois 20, Eastern Michigan 13
EMU showed up for the fight, but one too many penalties was probably the difference in this one.
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It was a back-and-forth, sleeves-rolled-up kind of fight. Two teams that knew what the deal was. The winner would still have a fighting chance at a divisional crown. The loser only has bowl season, at best, to look forward to this postseason.
Nobody would willingly take ‘no’ for an answer.
In the end, it’s Northern Illinois, the home dog, who keeps their divisional hopes alive: 20-13.
While Toledo, which just beat Miami in Oxford (21-17), in the driver’s seat of the MAC West, Northern Illinois will now ride shotgun as Eastern Michigan takes a back seat in the division. It’s too early to mathematically cross names out, but history tells us that divisional records matter a ton. No MAC team in a six-team divisional format has ever won their division with two divisional losses.
Eastern Michigan has two divisional losses: Central Michigan, and now NIU.
The wrong way to start a game
It only took 68 seconds for EMU to lose its top tackler.
On NIU’s third play of the game, Rocky Lombardi completed an over-the-middle pass to running back Gavin Williams to move the chains, and was met head-on by EMU linebacker Joe Sparacio. Sparacio, who entered the game fourth nationally in tackles per game (11.6), was ejected as result of the penalty, and just like that EMU was without its Roomba.
To clean up in his place, Elijah Williams came in and finished with six tackles, three for loss.
The drive continued all the way to the 5-yard line where EMU fought its way to a third-down stop. Lombardi’s pass would go incomplete, and should’ve brought out the field goal unit for a three-pointer. Instead, linebacker Chase Kline, and former teammate of Lombardi’s at Michigan State, gave a light tap and push on Lombardi’s shoulder to draw a flag. Roughing the passer, that’d move NIU up to the 2-yard line and a fresh set of downs.
Right on cue, Antario Brown got into the end zone to cap off a 9-play, 75-yard drive.
Costly, costly penalties
Both teams only scored with a touchdown and field goal apiece in the first half. EMU responded to its 7-0 deficit by grinding out a 75-yard drive capped by Samson Evans’ 35th career rushing touchdown. In the second quarter, the left-footed Jesus Gomez made his 21st career field goal from 34 yards out, then NIU’s Kanon Woodill evened up the scoreboard with 14 seconds left in the half with a 35-yard kick.
NIU’s field goal before halftime might not have happened if not for another poor penalty from Kline. EMU stopped NIU short of the sticks on a 3rd and 14 situation in NIU territory, but Kline drew an unnecessary roughness penalty away from the play to give NIU 15 yards and a first down.
Penalties, to be fair, weren’t just a Kline issue (not that penalties weren’t, also, a Kline issue). EMU finished the game with seven penalties for 78 yards lost, and NIU had 10 calls go against them for 85 yards. NIU even matched EMU in the targeting department to begin the second half.
As Tanner Knue went down on the turf with a non-catch, NIU safety Nate Valcarcel went shoulder-to-helmet, late, on Knue’s head in the first four minutes of the second half. Valcarcel would be disqualified from the contest as well.
A penalty by EMU’s right guard also took six points off the board in the second half. Austin Smith felt the heat from NIU’s defense and still connected his late throw to Hamze El-Zayat in the end zone for a score on the first drive of the half. OL Alex Howie felt the pressure too and erroneously stuck his leg out to try and trip NIU’s blitzing safety, which is a no-no. So instead of a touchdown, EMU settled for another Gomez field goal (37 yards) to be up 13-10 rather than 17-10.
(Which, let’s go down this path. If Kline would’ve never touched Lombardi in the first drive, then NIU would’ve only taken a 3-0 lead on a field goal. Then if he wouldn’t have helped NIU’s first-half-ending drive pick up a first down when it was third and a mile, then that field goal wouldn’t have existed either. Now add Howie’s touchdown-erasing penalty to the board. If those three penalties never happen, EMU would’ve led NIU 21-3 to this point. Instead, it’s only a 13-10 lead.)
Final 2 minutes
Tied up at 13-13, NIU took the ball on its own 20 with 7:58 left in the game after a 68-yard punt by Mitch Tomasek. That’s when NIU would piece together its longest drive of the afternoon.
Lombardi connected a 21-yard pass to junior college transfer Grayson Barnes on a seam route to get across midfield, then Williams ran the ball 34 yards to get inside the 5.
With 1:16 remaining, Lombardi kneeled the ball twice to force EMU to burn its two remaining timeouts. But would NIU run the ball in for a touchdown on third down to let EMU have the ball back? Or would Lombardi kneel it to let the field goal unit take over?
Lombardi chose to score it, and EMU’s offense took over with the ball with a minute left and needed to score a touchdown.
The sequence: pass breakup on first down, Smith was hit as he threw the ball straight up into the air (fumble, officially) and was caught by left tackle Chris Mayo (who ended up gaining 17 yards on the return), completion to El-Zayat, then Smith was sacked and tossed the ball up to whoever felt like catching it in the area (which happened to be an NIU D-lineman).
Other than the penalties, EMU actually played OK enough
If you’re just reading the box score, you won’t be impressed with EMU’s performance.
Only 3.2 yards per carry, 5.8 yards per pass attempt.
On third downs, EMU was 7/14, NIU was 8/14.
Yes, Austin Smith had an uninspiring 14/26 passing line for 151 yards and 2 interceptions (no scores). Sure, Evans only reached 68 rushing yards on 19 carries while Jaylon Jackson had 31 yards on 7 handles. The longest “rush” of the day came from an offensive lineman, which isn’t anything to brag about as an offense. But given how NIU’s offense wasn’t much better on the day either and this game was arguably lost by penalties, it’s hard to rag on how sloppy EMU’s offense looked when NIU’s defense is incredibly disruptive.
Besides, not every victory needs to be clean and picture-perfect. Good teams win ugly games. And EMU’s had two ugly road losses in conference play, and now it’s waiting on a miracle tiebreaker to put in Detroit come December.