NIU wins MAC West title again
Mark Blackemail@example.com Jimmie Ward of Northern Illinois University celebrates a second quarter interception against the Toledo Rockets in Dekalb, Wednesday.
DEKALB — The biggest question mark coming into the season for Northern Illinois wasn't at quarterback.
Despite losing Chandler Harnish to graduation after he led NIU to the Mid-American Conference title and a victory in the GoDaddy.com Bowl, Huskies coach Dave Doeren knew junior Jordan Lynch would be a lights-out replacement.
He just wasn't sure about the offensive line after four seniors left with Harnish.
"I knew Jordan was going to be great," Doeren said before the Huskies, led by Lynch, defeated Toledo 31-24 at Huskie Stadium on Wednesday night to give NIU its third straight MAC West title.
"I just didn't know if we'd be able to protect him as well as we've been able to."
Doeren has had all his questions answered by the group of sophomore left tackle Tyler Loos, junior left guard Jared Volk, freshman center Andrew Ness, freshman right guard Aiden Conlon, sophomore right tackle Ryan Brown and sophomore tight end Luke Eakes.
"I didn't know how good the offensive line was going to be," Doeren said. "We had four seniors last year on our offensive line leaving. We knew we had a lot of good young offensive linemen coming up, but we didn't know how long it would take them to become as good as they are right now."
As for Lynch, his line allowed him to lead the way again Wednesday with 569 total yards of offense that featured an explosive second half. After being held to 53 yards rushing and 83 passing in a first half in which the Huskies scored a season-low 7 points, Lynch finished with 407 yards passing and 162 rushing.
He threw for 3 touchdowns, 2 of them to Martel Moore, and engineered scoring drives of 99 and 97 yards in the second half. Lynch threw for 296 yards in the third quarter alone.
"I have good players around me," Lynch said. "A lot of my yards tonight were just little bubble screens."
"He is certainly a special football player," Toledo coach Matt Campbell said. "The thing you know in this conference, the best quarterback has a chance to win the MAC championship."
Toledo took the opening kickoff and went 72 yards in 12 plays to take a 7-0 lead on David Fluellen's 1-yard touchdown run.
An interception by NIU's Jimmie Ward set up the tying score early in the second quarter. Ward picked off a Terrence Owens pass at the Rockets' 34. Owens threw 3 interceptions for the game.
The Huskies went for it on a fourth-and-1 near the nine-minute mark and made it on a run by Lynch. Three minutes later Lynch hit Moore on a 5-yard fade route to tie the game at 7-7.
Toledo came right back and marched 83 yards in seven plays to go back ahead 14-7 at halftime on a 1-yard run by quarterback Owens.
The second half started with a bang for NIU with Lynch and Moore hooking up again, this time on a 73-yard pass play.
An interception by NIU's Rashaan Melvin at the Huskies' 1 set up a 99-yard, eight-play scoring drive. The drive that gave NIU its first lead of the game was capped by Lynch's third TD pass of the night and second in the first six minutes of the second half to Perez Ashford.
"I think he came out and played his butt off, and I knew he would," Doeren said of Lynch. "If it weren't for the 2 turnovers it might have been the best game any quarterback has played around here."
It became 28-14 when Akeem Daniels' 6-yard run capped a 97-yard scoring drive.
"They came out in the second half and were a lot more open," Campbell said. "They made some really good adjustments in the second half, spreading it out and getting it to their players. They executed in some critical situations."
The game was televised nationally by ESPN2, meaning another midweek game for the Huskies.
"In our conference it's just something you have to do," Doeren said. "It's part of our television package. At the end of the day it's what's best for the university and the program to be on national television as much as possible."
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