YPSILANTI, Mich. – Tre Harbison couldn’t do anything but sit on the sideline and pray.
As Chad Ryland’s field-goal attempt from 38 yards sailed wide right, his prayers were answered.
Then he took matter into his own hands.
Harbison fumbled to start the second overtime of NIU’s 26-23 win at Eastern Michigan on Saturday, but the Eagles couldn’t score in their half of the overtime, either.
“I don’t think I ever prayed so hard in my life over there on the sidelines,” said Harbison, who finished with 136 rushing yards on 32 carries. “When a guy missed it, I felt like it was all God. I felt like we were going to win the game. Big ups to my teammates – not one person over there said a negative thing to me or nothing like that. I feel like they had my back, so I knew it was going to be a special win after that.”
[Photos by Brian B. Sevald for Shaw Media]
The Eagles did connect on a 42-yard field goal to start the third overtime. The Huskies ran seven plays in their half of the overtime. Five of them were runs by Harbison.
“Tre did a great job bouncing back,” NIU coach Rod Carey said. “We were going to give him the ball right away coming back after that fumble. We believe in Tre. ... We needed to get him back in there right away and give him the ball, and we were afforded the opportunity to do that.”
The Huskies had the ball on first-and-10 at the Eagles’ 11, and Harbison ran for 6 yards, carrying a couple of defenders with him. At the end of the play, the ball popped loose, and Kevin McGill recovered.
Harbison said the team didn’t pounce on him, metaphorically, after the fumble.
“There wasn’t one person that said anything to him after that fumble ’cause we all believe in him,” Carey said. “And we wanted to get him the ball back. Fortunately, the defense afforded us that with the missed field goal. And we got the ball back, and he was determined.”
Then, after his third-down run from the 1 for a touchdown, the team did pounce on him. Literally.
“All my teammates came and rushed me and had my back,” Harbison said. “That’s the greatest feeling ever.”
After Harbison’s fumble, the Eagles didn’t manage a first down on their possession in the second overtime.
“We try not to let the pressure get bigger than life, so what we try to do is get on our assignment,” said defensive end Sutton Smith, who had a sack in the win. “If you’re going to do that, you’re going to play fast. We knew we had to hold them. So it was like, ‘Alright let’s do this. ... We’ve been here before.’ That’s the main thing.”
Antonio Jones-Davis had 3½ tackles for a loss, two sacks, a fumble recovery and 13 tackles in the win. He agreed with Smith, saying the team, while aware of the situation, was trying to approach it as normal.
“I don’t think it changes anything ’cause Coach Carey, and the rest of the coaching staff, preaches to strain, to play with heart and to execute every play,” Jones-Davis said. “That’s what we try to do. We know it was sudden death, though. ... We just really tried to focus on executing like we always do.”
And to get his last shot after the fumble meant a lot to him.
“I just had to let it go,” Harbison said. “Just let every play go, and it’s always to the next play. Coach always says it’s a one-play mindset. I knew my guys were going to need me in the end. I couldn’t let that fumble determine the whole game.”