Northern Illinois entered the 2021 season picked to finish last in their division by the media in the preseason MAC poll. Undaunted, they defied the odds en route to a nine-win, conference championship season — in large part due to a rushing attack that net the Huskies over 3,000 yards on the ground this year.
While the season was already a massive success entering their Cure Bowl matchup with Sun Belt runner-up Coastal Carolina, the manner in which they fell to the Chants will undoubtedly haunt them till next season.
With under seven minutes left in the game and a chance to drive and score a touchdown that would have given the Huskies their first bowl win since 2011, NIU head coach Thomas Hammock faced a fourth-and-one from inside his team’s 40-yard line. Despite having gashed the Chanticleers for 319 rushing yards to that point, Hammock chose to run a trick play that saw quarterback Rocky Lombardi feign confusion from the sidelines, while a direct snap was handled by Trayvon Rudolph. Coastal wasn’t fooled by the trickery, stopping Rudolph and giving their offense and opportunity to take the lead.
“We’ve been aggressive all season, we didn’t come to a bowl game not to win,” said Hammock. “We didn’t get it, they made a stop, but what we weren’t going to do was be up, kick it to them and they score a touchdown. Our offensive is aggressive and we wanted to play to our strength.”
On the next play, Coastal signal-caller Grayson McCall would find running back Braydon Bennett for a 34-yard touchdown pass that would give the Chants a 47-41 lead.
Entering the game as an 11.5-point underdog, Northern Illinois has played the role of spoiler throughout the 2021 season — and their first drive of the game made a clear statement to Coastal Carolina that there wouldn’t be any surprises.
Of the Huskies' 37 first-half plays, 28 were called runs, starting with an 11-play, 75-yard opening drive that saw Hammock’s team gain 68 yards on the ground. Michigan State transfer Rocky Lombardi converted a fourth-and-short quarterback sneak for a 28-yard gain, then on fourth-and-goal from the Coastal five-yard line, he found wideout Cole Tucker in the back corner of the endzone to give NIU an early lead.
“Obviously, we’re a heavy run team. That lowers the safeties and allows us to take more shots downfield,” said Tucker postgame.
On the other side, back-to-back Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year Grayson McCall led the Chants to a TD drive of their own. Four of the first five plays for CCU were passes, en route to a 10-play, 75-yard drive that ended with running back Braydon Bennett scoring from 13 yards out. However, the PAT was blocked, leaving Coastal with only six points. Bennett would go on to rush for 108 yards and two touchdowns on the evening.
NIU’s next drive saw the Huskies drive inside of Coastal Carolina territory, but was forced to settle for a 41-yard field goal by kicker John Richardson, ending the first quarter with a 10-6 lead. The Chants offense, which entered the contest averaging 40.4 points per game were gifted a touchdown 75 seconds into the second quarter when Coastal wide receiver Aaron Bedgood was left uncovered, giving the Chants a 13-10 lead.
Huskies’ short-yardage back Clint Ratkovich gave NIU the advantage on the following drive, scoring his team-leading 13th rushing touchdown of the year from two yards out. Defensively, NIU would continue to hold strong, limiting the Chants to two Massimo Bascardi field goals for the rest of the half, while adding a 12-yard score from tight end Miles Joiner to take a 24-19 lead into the intermission.
“I’m proud of the way our team came back in the second half, our first half wasn’t clean, we had a few foolish penalties, but our team doesn’t give up, they believe in each other,” said Coastal Carolina head coach Jamey Chadwell.
Chadwell’s team came out of the half looking to start fast — and they were able to do that on their opening drive, going 75 yards in just over two minutes as McCall hit Isaiah Likely for a 27-yard touchdown to give the Chants the lead.
McCall ended the night with 315 yards passing and four touchdown passes.
Both teams’ ground games would allow them to trade scores for the rest of the game’s penultimate quarter, with Lombardi scoring from one-yard out, Bennett ripping off a 60-yard burst down the NIU sideline and capped by Huskies’ running back Antario Brown scoring on a seven-yard TD to give NIU a 38-33 lead.
Lombardi finished the contest going 20-of-33 passing for 181 yards and two touchdowns while adding another 66 yards on the ground.
The game’s first punt didn’t come until the 1:08 mark of the third quarter as both teams eclipsed the pregame projection of 63 combined points entering the final period of play.
NIU’s final score of the thriller came on a Richardson 45-yard boot, putting the Huskies ahead by eight. However, the Chanticleers, who suffered a heartbreaking overtime loss in the Cure Bowl one year ago, mustered up the final comeback to avenge last year’s defeat.
“Sorry for making y’all wait so long, it’s a lot better walk up here when you win,” said Chadwell. “What an unbelievable football game especially how we came up short in last year’s game, I’m just really proud of how they didn’t fold.”
Hammock’s team took the field with 2:29 left, needing to go 87 yards with no timeouts left. On fourth-and-four from their own 40, Lombardi found Tucker over the middle of the field and he raced for a 23-yard gain.
With 27 seconds left, Messiah Drucker hauled in a seven-yard gain, but was injured on the play — requiring a 10-second runoff. Two plays later, Lombardi connected with Joiner on the Coastal sideline — but was ruled to have not made it out of bounds. By rule, at least three seconds are required for a team to be able to line up and complete a spike — despite NIU’s plea, the referees ruled the game essentially over, despite the Huskies lining up for a spike.
“We knew the rule, I was just hoping that the refs did, we know that you need at least three for a spike,” said Chadwell.
NIU’s head coach saw the final play from a different vantage point.
“They made the call, they saw it how they saw it, it’s interesting there was a similar situation in the first half where they ruled their guy out of bounds, we were ready to snap the ball and they held us up and wouldn’t let us snap it,” said Hammock.
The contest ended with both teams accounting for 1,030 yards of total offense, 534 rushing yards and five lead changes.