Joe Novak of Northern Illinois heaved a big sigh of relief Wednesday night after watching his Huskies celebrate a win over the University of Toledo for the first time in his head coaching career.
"We knew sooner or later it had to happen because this couldn't go on forever," he said.
Novak was 0-8 against the Rockets. NIU had dropped 11 straight to Toledo and hadn't won in the Glass Bowl since 1972.
All that changed on a blustery night as the Huskies rolled to a 35-17 upset win.
Novak's first three teams at Northern went 3-30, then improved enough to play at .500 over the next two seasons. Starting with the 2001 campaign, the resurgent Huskies shared the Mid-American Conference West Division title with Toledo no fewer than three times, but had never advanced to the MAC championship game because of regular-season losses to the Rockets.
That will change this season, providing NIU takes care of business at home Wednesday against Western Michigan.
Should the Huskies lose that game and should UT manage to win Tuesday night at Bowling Green, the Rockets would again advance.
"We're hurting, but we have to stay focused," said UT tailback Trinity Dawson, who ran for 104 yards against NIU and reached the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the first time in his career. "We only have six days to prepare for our next game and we absolutely have to be ready."
UT coach Tom Amstutz sounded the same battle cry.
"We have one game left and we have to move forward," he said. "It will test our character."
Amstutz credited his team with playing hard and showing a lot of heart Wednesday night, but you had to wonder if he meant it. After completely shutting Northern Illinois down in the second quarter - the Huskies ran 19 plays, netted just eight yards, and threw an interception to UT safety Keon Jackson - the Rockets followed with their worst half of the season.
Toledo was outscored 28-3, outgained in total yards 210-169, and committed four turnovers, three coming on interceptions thrown by senior quarterback Bruce Gradkowski.
Meanwhile, NIU running back Garrett Wolfe, playing for the first time after missing three games due to a knee injury, broke loose for 141 of his 178 rushing yards and caught three passes for 43 yards during the second half.
"I thought he would play, but I really wasn't sure until just before the game," Novak said of Wolfe. "What I am sure of is that I'm a better coach with Garrett running the ball."
UT's 17-game home winning streak, the third longest in the nation, was rubbed out by the Rockets' near-total breakdown in the second half.
Dan Nicholson, a red-shirt freshman making his first collegiate start at quarterback for NIU, completed 21 of 30 passes for 176 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for a score.
Now the Rockets have to face Omar Jacobs of Bowling Green, who can throw for 176 yards in his sleep, on Tuesday.
"We seniors have to prepare like it could be our last week," Gradkowski said.
Because of their stunning loss to Northern Illinois, that could be the case for the Rockets, win or lose against BG.
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