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Huskies' offense finds spark in second half of comeback win at Ohio

Ross Bowers hands off the ball to Tre Harbison (right) during NIU's game against the Ohio Bobcats' on Oct. 11, 2019, in Athens, Ohio.
Ross Bowers hands off the ball to Tre Harbison (right) during NIU's game against the Ohio Bobcats' on Oct. 11, 2019, in Athens, Ohio.

ATHENS, Ohio – Freshman John Richardson got to play hero in Northern Illinois’ 39-36 win at Ohio on Saturday, capping a second-half comeback with a 37-yard field goal as time expired to give NIU its first Mid-American Conference win of the season.

Richardson bounced back from a 1-for-3 start on field goals to kick his first career game-winner.

“It was tough missing two earlier in the game,” Richardson said. “I just knew I had to get through that and help my team win the game.”

Career days from Mitchell Brinkman and Cole Tucker helped spur the Huskies.

“I didn’t even watch. I was sick to my stomach,” quarterback Ross Bowers said of Richardson’s field goal. “Me and Jack Heflin were sitting on the bench. We were looking at each other, like … I’ll just wait for the reaction.”

All he needed to see was his Huskies teammates storming the field.

NIU entered the game last in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision in third-down conversions, but Bowers shook off those woes, going 10 of 16 on third-down conversions. On a third down in the fourth quarter, Bowers found Brinkman for a 48-yard pass that set up a a 4-yard rushing touchdown from Tre Harbison, one of three for the Huskies’ tailback, as NIU took the lead, 36-29.

Ohio responded with a 47-yard scoring strike from Nathan Rourke to Shane Hooks, tying the game at 36 with 3:38 left in the fourth quarter.

“I’m a resilient person,” NIU coach Thomas Hammock said. “I’m a tough-minded person. The team and my coaches showed that type of toughness that we want to establish long term with this program.”

NIU needed a little magic to jump-start the offense in the second half.

With the Huskies trailing early in the third quarter, 21-10, and the offense not having scored a TD, backup quarterback Marcus Childers ran 70 yards up the middle, setting up a 4-yard Harbison TD. That cut Ohio’s lead to five after an unsuccessful two-point conversion try.

“[Harbison] broke some tackles,” Hammock said. “He missed some runs early in the game that put us behind the sticks. I got on him a little bit, and he responded the right way.”

That sparked the Huskies offense, which went 76 yards on its next drive as Harbison scored his second TD, this time from a yard out as NIU took the lead, 22-21, with 3:13 left in the third quarter.

Ohio’s next drive was stopped dead in its tracks when Trayshon Foster, playing tight man coverage, broke up Rourke’s pass thrown down the hash on the Huskies’ side of the field.

NIU answered with another long drive, keyed by a 28-yard reception that Brinkman caught despite contact. Bowers found Tyrice Richie for his third receiving TD of the season, this one from 30-yards out. It was his first TD reception since the season opener against Illinois State.

Ohio mounted its own drive immediately after the Richie score, traversing 73 yards to tie the game. Ryan Leuerhman hauled in the TD reception, then Julian Ross escaped Mykelti Williams’ shoestring tackle attempt to tie it at 29.

With Ohio having marched to two scores, the Bobcats called a throwback to left tackle Austen Pleasants, who caught the ball and rumbled in for a 2-yard TD for what goes down as a rushing play – similar to play the Huskies ran in 2018 against the Bobcats. The Bobcats went up 21-10 and went into the half with that lead as Richardson had one of his two missed field goals to end the half.

Ohio took a 14-10 lead early in the second quarter with some trickery. After a Devin Haney holding call in the end zone, Ohio took advantage of the fresh set of downs from the 1-yard line by running a reverse pass that went from running back Julian Ross, to wide receiver DL Knock, who lofted an off-balance pass to Rourke in the end zone for a TD.

NIU’s Adam Buirge scored on a blocked punt by Corey Lersch. Buirge only had to scoop up the ball and trot 3 yards into the end zone to score the first points of the game.

Rourke trotted into the end zone on the Bobcats’ second possession as NIU tied the game at 7 after an effortless drive.

The Huskies’ Michael Kennedy was taken off the field on a stretcher after a hit on the opening kickoff by Keye Thompson. Thompson was flagged for an unsportsmanlike penalty on the play, but the initial call of targeting was rescinded. Kennedy was taken to a nearby medical facility and returned to the stadium in the third quarter.

By the numbers: Richardson kicked a 51-yard field goal to put NIU up, 10-7, in the second quarter, but also missed a 43-yard attempt later. Huskies outside linebacker Antonio Jones-Davis had a sack in the second consecutive game.

Beyond the stats: In the second quarter, Bowers threw an interception that was returned by Ilyas Motley, who tried to lateral the ball at the end of the run. Motley’s toss fell to the ground, where it was recovered by NIU’s Jordan Steckler, but upon further review, the toss was ruled an incomplete forward pass and Ohio retained possession. The Bobcats went on to score on Pleasants’ throwback TD.

They said it: “I loved the way our coaches responded. I love the way our players responded,” Hammock said.

Up next: NIU plays at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Miami.

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