DEKALB -- On a day with plenty of dreary mismatches in college football, the nation's premier quarterback duel took place in DeKalb. In no way did it disappoint.
Eastern Illinois' Jimmy Garoppolo lived up to his billing and then some, finishing with 450 passing yards and 6 touchdowns. NIU's Jordan Lynch responded with 424 combined yards -- 235 passing and 189 rushing.
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There should be a decent-sized gap between the FBS defending Mid-American Conference champs and the FCS Ohio Valley Conference champs, but EIU hung around until the end, finally dropping a 43-39 decision before a full house at Huskie Stadium.
"This is the best team we've played to date," NIU coach Rod Carey said. "That was the type of game I was expecting going in."
Based on that statement, Carey believes Eastern Illinois is better than Iowa, which lost to the Huskies on Aug. 31. Northern Illinois gets a second Big Ten opponent next week at Purdue.
"We play the game to win," EIU coach Dino Babers said. "We knew we were playing up a level. We knew we were playing a champion. We wanted to get the game into the fourth quarter and have a chance to win it."
Eight different NFL teams were listed on the press box seating chart. One visitor wearing an NFL team shirt said he left the Wisconsin-Purdue game at halftime so he could watch this one.
For the first three drives of the night, Garoppolo appeared as NFL-ready as any quarterback has ever been. He completed 13 of 16 attempts for 180 yards and 3 touchdowns -- in the first 7½ minutes of the first quarter.
The astonishing display sent underdog Eastern Illinois to an early 20-0 lead. Those first three drives included a 14-yard pass to Erik Lora in the corner of the end zone. Then after EIU recovered an onside kick, Garoppolo drilled Adam Drake on the next play for a 43-yard score. After a defensive stop, Keiondre Gober caught a 13-yard touchdown pass.
"I don't know if it was a slow start by us as much as it was a really fast start by them," Carey said.
NIU's answer was more pressure. The Huskies made things less comfortable for Garoppolo and eventually recorded 5 sacks. After the hot start, the former Rolling Meadows quarterback finished the first half a more mortal 7 of 13 for 75 yards.
Garoppolo threw a fourth-down interception on a long pass that was essentially a good punt, ending at the 1-yard line. A second interception was a miscommunication with his receiver, who stopped short, while Garoppolo threw long.
"We got stalled up once we were up 20 and they got a good pass rush after us," Garoppolo said. "Just some bad decisions on our part. We can't stall like that with our offense and be successful."
Garoppolo completed 34 of 49 passes Saturday and has 13 touchdown passes in his last two games. The 6-foot-3 senior tied the EIU and OVC records for career touchdown passes with 85, a mark held by Tony Romo.
Lynch probably doesn't have a good enough arm to play quarterback in the NFL. But he might have the tools to get a look as a safety or running back or some position where speed is a virtue.
Eastern Illinois took a 39-36 lead with 9:53 left on a 10-yard pass from Garoppola to Lora (14 catches, 198 yards). NIU marched 62 yards in just 4 plays and scored the game-winner on an 8-yard run by Keith Harris with 8:25 left.
Eastern (3-1) got just one chance to retake the lead and it was ruined by offensive pass interference and holding penalties. The Panthers punted and NIU picked up 3 first downs to run out the clock.
Schaumburg native Shepard Little led EIU in rushing with 81 yards on 12 carries.
"We had to slow down their run first," Carey said. "You've got to get a player of that caliber (Garoppolo) in situations where you know he's got to throw, so you can kind of get after him some. Once we got that and we got our feet set defensively a little bit and got accustomed to the pace, then we were able to kind of turn loose on them a few times."