OXFORD, Ohio – Miami’s early struggles on offensive went away when the RedHawks mounted a seemingly effortless scoring drive late in the second quarter against Northern Illinois to pull within three points in an eventual 27-24 win Saturday.
That drive set the tone for the rest of the Mid-American Conference game, in which freshman quarterback Brett Gabbert threw for 273 yards on 15-of-28 passing.
NIU (2-5, 1-2 MAC) had the ball trailing, 27-24, with less than two minutes remaining but could not get a first down, allowing Miami (3-4, 2-1) to retain the Mallory Cup after winning the trophy in its first season a year ago in DeKalb.
“There’s a few plays that I personally could have pulled down and ran and could have got the first down and could have kept the chains moving,” NIU quarterback Marcus Childers said. “Wasn’t good enough on my part. They made more plays than we did.”
On the drive late in the first half, Gabbert completed passes of 28, 16 and 23 yards, the final one to Jalen Walker to set up the RedHawks deep in Huskies territory. On fourth-and-goal from the 1, Jaylon Bester scored to cut NIU’s lead to 10-7.
Childers played the second half after Ross Bowers appeared to injure his head late in the second quarter.
NIU was without wideout Tyrice Richie and linebacker Jordan Cole, who were suspended.
“I’m going to talk to the leadership council and see what they want to do with those situations,” NIU coach Thomas Hammock said.
After NIU fell behind by 10, Childers led a drive using his feet and his arm, picking up several rushing first downs before firing a 10-yard touchdown pass to Cole Tucker to cut NIU’s deficit to three with 2:44 remaining.
But in other instances, Childers threw risky passes when he could have gotten the first down with his feet.
“Childers knew their coverage is stretched down the field,” Hammock said. “If you take off, they can’t tackle you in space. To take sacks on second-and-2 and to take a sack on a first-and-10, we can’t do those things. We have to play the game before the game happens.”
After a 45-yard touchdown pass from Gabbert to James Maye put Miami on top, 14-10, to start the second half, the Huskies responded with a drive of their own.
Childers hit Michael Love on a contested catch between the right hash and the numbers for a 38-yard strike. Childers went on to finish the drive on a 3-yard scamper around the left end to go into the end zone untouched for a 17-14 NIU lead in the third quarter.
But the Huskies went scoreless on their next three drives, including a missed field goal.
“I put a lot of it on my shoulders because I knew could have played better,” Childers said. “I could have been more prepared.”
Miami scored once more after a long Jalen Walker reception put Miami at the 1-yard line and punched the ball in from a yard out as Bester ran in his second rushing score for a 21-17 Miami lead.
The RedHawks added to the lead with a 34-yard Sam Sloman field goal in the first minute of the fourth quarter to go up, 24-17. Sloman later knocked through a kick from 37 yards to pad the lead.
“We’ve got to be the guys that put the fire out and get off the field on third downs,” Huskies safety Mykelti Williams said.
Bowers was hurt late in the second quarter when the quarterback was upended on a read-option play and landed on top of his head. Bowers stumbled and fell over when trying to walk off the field under his own power.
“He’s going to go through the [concussion] protocol, and whatever the trainers let me know, we’ll go with that,” Hammock said.
Childers took over for Bowers and finished the 13-play, 43-yard drive with a 1-yard sneak to put NIU up, 10-0, with about three minutes remaining in the half.
Bowers had completed a 16-yard pass on second-and-18 that helped set up a short third-down chance that running back Tre Harbison converted. Harbison ran five times on the drive and 18 times in the first half as the Huskies went run heavy.
Antonio Jones-Davis didn’t play after being injured in the fourth quarter of NIU’s 39-36 victory over Ohio on Oct. 12.
“I’ll talk about that on Tuesday,” Hammock said.
By the numbers: Childers hit Tucker for a 10-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter. Tucker had six receptions for 82 yards. Childers ended the afternoon 14-of-23 passing for 144 yards and a touchdown.
Beyond the stats: Tucker hauled in a sprinting, one-handed reception for a 39-yard gain in the first half.
They said it: “We just have to be seniors,” Williams said. “This is our last year. Some guys are new to it, new to week-to-week playing games. We’ve just got to lead in the right way and lead by example.”