Just 41 seconds.
That is all that separated Northern Illinois from its first outright Mid-American Conference West Division football championship, the right to play in the league championship game for the first time, and a certain bowl bid.
A measly 41 seconds.
That number has haunted the Huskies for almost a year. That fraction of a minute was how close they came to the Promised Land before the gate was slammed in their faces.
That 41 seconds has turned out to be an eternity.
Northern Illinois was leading Toledo 30-26 with less than a minute to play in its final game of the 2002 regular season. The date was Nov. 23 and the site was DeKalb, Ill.
The Huskies had rolled through seven straight MAC opponents unbeaten, and after jumping out to a 17-0 lead vs. Toledo, they were on the verge of clinching it all as hysteria surged through the more than 20,000 fans at Huskie Stadium.
The Northern Illinois players gave coach Joe Novak the victory dousing with Gatorade, and the crowd was implored not to tear down the goal posts. But all of that proved awkwardly premature as Toledo quarterback Brian Jones hit Dont Greene with a 26-yard touchdown pass and the Rockets pulled off a stunning 33-30 win.
The clock read 00:41 when Green scored, giving UT, not the Huskies, the invitation to the MAC Championship Game, and then the bid to the Motor City Bowl. Northern Illinois got just a piece of the West title, and a whole year to think about those 41 seconds.
Novak said his team did not dwell on that painful outcome, but it also did not allow itself to forget. Each Northern Illinois practice session this spring was closed with 41-second sprints. The same ritual continued in August.
"It wasn t that game, or losing to Toledo that was painful,” Novak said. “It was the fact that we came up 41 seconds short. Our strength coach came up with the idea that at the end of each practice, we would have a 41-second sprint. It s a burst to remind us how close we came. It is a reminder of how close we got to our goal last year."
Northern Illinois (9-1, 5-1) comes to the Glass Bowl on Saturday afternoon to try to atone for those 41 seconds, but the Huskies, ranked No. 21 in the country, are not in the same position of strength they enjoyed last year. To get to the MAC Championship this year the Huskies need to win, then get some help.
Northern must first beat Toledo (6-3, 4-1), a team that owns nine straight wins in this series. Then the Huskies have to close the season with a victory over Eastern Michigan at home, all the while hoping that someone else can knock off Bowling Green, the only team to defeat the Huskies this season.
“We have to take care of those things that we can control,” Novak said, “and hope that everything else that we can t control works out in our favor. Right now, all we can have on our minds is Toledo.”
The Rockets control their own destiny in the MAC West race as they pursue a sixth division title in the seven years since the conference moved to that format. The formula is simple - win three straight and they will host the conference title game Dec. 4. A home game with Western Michigan next week and the season finale at Bowling Green loom on the horizon, but those games lose some of their meaning if the Rockets don t first get past Northern Illinois, a team that owns wins over Maryland, Alabama and Iowa State this season, and has the leading rusher in the MAC in tailback Michael Turner.
“This is a championship-type game, with a shot at the championship on the line for both teams,” Toledo coach Tom Amstutz said. “The winner stays in the hunt and the team that loses is probably out of it.”
Northern Illinois climbed in the polls and crept into the BCS picture by winning its first seven games this year, but a 34-18 loss at Bowling Green on Oct. 25 staggered the Huskies. They have routed Ball State and Buffalo since that lone defeat.
Amstutz expects Northern Illinois to be a highly motivated team.
“They ve got a lot to play for, just like us. They re fighting for their lives, too, so we expect to get their best shot.”
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