LARAMIE, Wyo. – Most Northern Illinois football fans woke up Sunday morning to find the sky was falling.
The Huskies opened the season with a 40-34 loss at Wyoming, but the heartbreaking, triple-overtime defeat was filled with several moments in which NIU was its own worst enemy.
There were missed extra points and field goals, a fumble on the 2-yard line and several costly penalties – 12 in all after having a season-high of eight last season.
“Too many mistakes to win a football game,” Huskies coach Rod Carey said. “The kids played hard, but we’ve got a lot to correct. I think there’s enough blame to go around with all the sloppiness there was. Good football team, give Wyoming credit. We knew they were going to be improved, and they were everything we thought they were.”
However, the Huskies, who had 12 penalties for 108 yards, weren’t the only ones to have critical miscues during the season opener that lasted four hours, 14 minutes. Wyoming committed 10 penalties for 100 yards – including ones that negated a kick return for a touchdown and a punt return for a touchdown.
The Cowboys, who went 2-10 last year but bring back 17 starters, also missed a pair of field goals that would have won the game – from 48 at the end of regulation and a 37-yarder that would have won it during the first overtime.
Regardless, Northern Illinois (0-1) had plenty of chances that went unfulfilled.
Two plays after the Huskies took a 7-0 lead in the first quarter, NIU sophomore linebacker Renard Cheren intercepted a pass and returned it deep into Wyoming territory but NIU star cornerback Shawun Lurry was called for holding. In the second half, Lurry had a chance at a pick-six, but couldn’t haul in the interception.
With the game tied at 20 late in the third quarter, the NIU defense committed three penalties on a Wyoming drive – holding, personal foul and pass interference – that helped result in a touchdown pass by Cowboys quarterback Josh Allen, who returned from an early season-ending injury in 2015 by going 19 for 29 with 245 yards and two scores and also rushed for 70 yards and the game-winning 7-yard scamper in triple overtime.
“The game slowed down for me as it went on,” Allen said. “I came out a little nervous, eager to play, calmed down after halftime. The offense didn’t give up any sacks and I felt comfortable in the pocket. This team is something special and I feel it.”
While Wyoming running back Brian Hill (33 carries, 125 yards, two touchdowns) bulldozed his way against the NIU defense, the Huskies struggled mightily to run up the middle against the Cowboys.
The leading rusher on the day for the Huskies was senior wide receiver Kenny Golladay, who ran six sweeps for 82 yards and a touchdown. Taking away the yards of Golladay, who only had 14 rushing yards last year, and the Huskies finished with 36 carries for 51 yards – an average of 1.4 per attempt.
Senior running back Joel Bouagnon, who had 1,285 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns in 2015, had 10 carries for 16 yards. During the first overtime, the Huskies were on the 2-yard line on third down – a situation in which the Huskies would have had Bouagnon plow in for a touchdown last season. Instead, they fumbled the snap over to Wyoming and had to be bailed out when the Cowboys missed their field goal attempt.
Despite the inability to run up the middle on the run, Carey declined to say that they struggled to run the ball – citing Golladay’s runs on the outside.
“It doesn’t matter ... running the ball is running the ball,” Carey said of the Huskies, who were outgained 243-133 on the ground. “If you want to sit there and say, ‘Running up the middle didn’t work, so you need to get better at that,’ – yeah, no doubt. But running the ball is running the ball. End of story.”
A major positive for the Huskies moving forward, however, was the play of senior quarterback Drew Hare, who was playing in his first game since tearing his Achilles against Toledo on Nov. 3. He finished 24 for 39 with 329 yards and three touchdowns. In the first Huskies drive of the game, he went 6 for 6 for 72 yards and hit Golladay (10 catches, 144 yards) for a 39-yard touchdown along the right sideline.
When NIU trailed 27-20 with 3:12 left to go, Hare was sacked on first down to put the Huskies facing a second-and-20 from their own 13. After that, he went 6 for 9 with 87 yards and a 19-yard touchdown pass to tight end Shane Wimann to force overtime.
“He had some mistakes, but overall I think it was pretty good for his long layoff,” Carey said. “But we have to get some things cleaned up – with him too, because there were some plays where he had that he could have made there. But overall, pretty good.”