NIU clinches a MAC West title in fitting fashion against Buffalo

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BUFFALO – One of the great turnaround stories in all of college football in 2021 continues to have its share of twists and turns as November continues.

But one thing has remained constant about a number of close, exciting, thrilling, and sometimes heart-testing games for Northern Illinois football: They continue to find a way to win them, and Wednesday was another example.

In a game at Buffalo in which they led by 14 in the second half, lost the lead, got it back, then watch the hosts tie again before missing a late field goal to win, the Huskies got an overtime turnover then a first play touchdown run to beat the Bulls 33-27 on Wednesday night to clinch the Mid-American Conference West Division championship.

Demond Taylor Jr.’s recovery of a Buffalo fumble at the one-yard line ended the home team’s overtime drive, then Clint Ratkovich completed the game with a 25-yard touchdown run on NIU’s first play. It improved the Huskies to 8-3 on the season and continues a celebrated turnaround for Thomas Hammock’s team that finish without a win in six contests in 2020.

By doing so, NIU clinched their eighth division championship in the last 12 years and earned a spot in the MAC Championship Game against the East Division winner on Saturday, December 4th.

“I couldn’t be more proud of them (players), couldn’t be more proud of our coaching staff for staying committed to the process of building this thing back the right way, and that’s what we’ve done,” said Hammock of the players after the win. “We have the second-youngest roster in college football, and we found a way to win the MAC West championship, and we’ve got some more games and some more meaningful games that we’re going to continue to play for.”

Once again, the team kept up their trend of winning games in 2021 in a close and dramatic fashion, with the six-point victory being the seventh this year decided by one possession. Four of those contests, including last weeks’ win over Ball State, were decided by one or two points.

This was another entertaining contest as the Huskies built their first big lead of the game in the second and third quarters thanks to touchdown runs by Trayvon Rudolph (75 yards), Antario Brown (47 yards), and Ratkovich (seven yards) to make it 24-10.

Ron Cook Jr.’s touchdown run then catch helped Buffalo tie the game in the fourth, but the Huskies grabbed the lead back on a John Richardson field goal later in the quarter. Alex McNulty’s 55-yard kick with 1:10 to go drew the Bulls even again, but NIU got in position for a Richardson 37-yard try at the end of regulation.

Unlike his last-second kick against Ball State, this attempt was blown wide left at the last minute by a gusty wind which forced overtime. That’s where the Huskies had their latest heroics in a season full of them as they locked up a spot in the MAC Championship Game in a turnaround season to remember.

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