After three-year absence, NIU returns to the MAC Championship Game

IOWA CITY, IOWA- SEPTEMBER 01: Quarterback Marcus Childers #15 hands off to tailback Tre Harbison #22 of the Northern Illinois Huskies in the first half of the match-up against the Iowa Hawkeyes, on September 1, 2018 at Kinnick Stadium, in Iowa City, Iowa. (Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images)

DEKALB – It’s only been since 2015. That’s not a really long time. But if you’re a fan of the Huskies, it might seem a bit lengthy.

Starting in 2010 and continuing for the next six years, Northern Illinois won the Mid-American Conference West Division title. Because of that, they appeared in six-straight MAC Championship Games.

During that time, they won three and lost three, including a 2012 victory over 18th-ranked Kent State that put them into the Orange Bowl for the first time in school history.

The last two seasons, Rod Carey’s team fell off the pace a bit, with Western Michigan and Toledo besting them for the spot in that championship game. But in 2018, it was the Huskies’ again.

Bolstered by a 6-0 start to MAC play, Northern Illinois captured the division title for the seventh time this decade. Even after back-to-back losses to finish the season, it earned them a chance to take on MAC East champion Buffalo on Friday night at Ford Field for the overall conference crown.

This completes a full, difficult, and well-traveled regular season for the Huskies, who had one of their toughest non-conference schedules in school history. They opened at Big Ten opponent Iowa, then hosted Pac-12 foe Utah – both defeats – before opening the conference schedule with a win over Central Michigan.

Next up was a trip to Florida State, which the Huskies lost 37-19, which was followed by three-straight conference wins.

After that came a mid-conference season trip to BYU, which Northern Illinois won in a defensive battle 7-6 in Provo. Two more wins in the MAC over Akron and Toledo followed, and a loss by Western Michigan to Ball State before the Huskies’ second-to-last game with Miami clinched the school’s tenth MAC division title.

“The grind, especially this season, with this schedule, and for us to make the championship, and I know people picked us to go there. But if you look at this schedule, it’s quite an accomplishment,” said Carey of making the championship game.

It wasn’t the best of endings for this otherwise strong campaign, as Northern Illinois lost to Miami (Ohio) 13-7 then to the Broncos 28-21 on the road to end the season. They’ll face a Buffalo team that had a similar situation in their second-to-last game of a strong 10-2 campaign, where they were stunned by Ohio in a 52-17 defeat.

Yet Carey dismissed the idea that his team suffered a letdown in the final two games after learning they won the division. To him, it wasn’t that complicated.

“I don’t think we let down in any way. I think we didn’t execute at key times in games with good teams,” said Carey. “All of our games have been close here. There hasn’t been one that hasn’t so I really believe that this team is excited about this week. It was a good break, we needed it.”

Now they’ll get a chance to go for an overall MAC Championship after a little bit of a break in appearances at Ford Field.

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