DeKALB – The Northern Illinois defense came up with stops time and again, with no one coming up bigger than cornerback Dillon Thomas in the Huskies' 17-14 win over Western Michigan Tuesday.
With just over two minutes remaining in the game, Western Michigan's Jon Wassink completed a pass to Dashon Bussell for 29 yards, but Thomas laid a hit and forced a fumble to get NIU the ball back and preserve the victory.
“Young guys played inspired football," coach Thomas Hammock said. "Seniors led the way. Just a great week of practice. Couldn’t be more proud of a group of men. I told them in the locker room, 17 years of coaching, that’s the proudest I’ve ever been on then sideline because guys stuck together through adversity.”
Before the game, Tre Harbison announced his plans to enter the transfer portal.
The Huskies' (5-7, 4-4 MAC) victory left Western Michigan's MAC Championship games subject to the results of Central Michigan's Friday game against Toledo. If the Chippewas win, they'll play Miami for the conference crown.
It was Thomas, who began the year as a cornerback, who did the honors of laying the hit and causing the fumble that senior safety Mykelti Williams recovered. Senior safety Trayshon Foster also recovered a fumble caused by a Matt Lorbeck strip of Wassink.
“I thought Jordan Cole was about to tip it and it went just above his fingers and it was right there," Thomas said. "I personally love peanut-punching and stripping. That was just one of my things. I was like alright, let’s get it, made a play.”
Quintin Wynne recorded two tackles for loss in a stingy, defensive first half and Lorbeck stripped Western Michigan quarterback Wassink of the ball twice with the Broncos deep in NIU territory.
In the fourth quarter, Jack Heflin recorded a sack of Wassink that forced a WMU punt and led to the score that put the Huskies up 17-7.
Western Michigan (7-5, 5-3) quickly sped down the field to open up the second half, with LeVante Bellamy's 55-yard run setting up a 6-yard touchdown run to cut NIU's lead to 10-7 just over two minutes into the third quarter.
As both squads traded punts four times each after the Bellamy score, NIU's defense broke through for consecutive tackles for loss, the first from Heflin and Cole, the second Heflin's sack.
After a 13-yard Cole Tucker punt return had the Huskies set up at the WMU 30, Jordan Nettles went up the gut for a 26-yard run.
Three plays later on third and goal, an end-around Michael Love pass to a wide open Mitchell Brinkman stretched NIU's lead to 17-7 with 7:47 left in the fourth quarter.
“We’ve been practicing that the whole year," Love said. "I’ve been waiting for them to call it. They used it at the right time. I think it was a game changer. I just did my part.”
WMU answered with a 75-yard drive of its own, capped by a 16-yard Bellamy touchdown run, his second rushing score.
With NIU then leading by three, quarterback Marcus Childers fumbled as the Broncos' Ali Fayad came up with a recovery, only to lead to Thomas' forced fumble.
Late in the second quarter, Tyrice Richie put the Huskies up two scores, as he took a dump off, sweep pass from Childers, escaped several would-be tacklers, fell over a defender, stayed on his feet and raced 71 yards for a score.
“I just knew I didn’t hit the ground, so I got back up and ran," Richie said.
"That play was crazy," Richie added.
The Broncos had a chance to tie the game late in the first half, when a John Wassink 34-yard run set the Broncos up in Huskies territory, but Gavin Peddie missed a 46-yard field goal. That was followed by Richie's touchdown romp for a 10-0 Huskies lead.
Cole came out of the gates seemingly ready to play, as his blocked punt and 25-yard recovery set the Huskies up in Broncos territory. Cole also recorded a tackle for loss on WMU's first drive.
The Huskies were unable to convert on the ensuing drive after a Love fumble.
Wynne recorded a tackle for no gain of Western Michigan's Davon Tucker on fourth and 1 from the 50-yard line in the first quarter, setting the tone for much of the rest of the night. Wynne had six tackles and 2.0 tackles for loss in the first half alone, as the Huskies took a 3-0 lead into the break.
Wynne's stop led to points for the Huskies, as NIU moved the chains on a 16-yard Childers run and sent out John Richardson for a 44-yard field goal and a 3-0 lead with 0:25 left in the first quarter. The senior defensive end had seven tackles and two tackles for loss.
NIU was outgained 348 yards of offense to 250, with Bellamy running for 128 yards.