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Northern Illinois linebacker Michael Santacaterina embraces coach Dave Doeren after the Huskies defeated the Bobcats to win the MAC Championship Friday night at Ford Field. It was Northern Illinois' first conference title since 1983. (Jim Ryan | FOR THE POST)

Football: Ohio surrenders 20-point lead, falls to Northern Illinois in MAC title game

After decades of frustration, the Bobcats were 30 minutes away from claiming their first Mid-American Conference title in 43 years.

And then that frustration got a whole lot worse.

Ohio squandered a 20-point halftime lead and fell to Northern Illinois, 23-20, in the MAC Championship game. The Huskies claimed their first league title since 1983 while the Bobcats sustained their third — and most painful — championship game loss in six seasons.

Northern Illinois scored three times in the final eight minutes en route to the victory. Ohio had allowed only one score and forced four turnovers until that point.

The loss also marked Ohio’s eighth postseason loss in as many tries. The Bobcats lost their previous two conference championship games to Central Michigan. Redshirt senior middle linebacker and team captain Noah Keller was a junior during Ohio’s last two losses at Ford Field — the 2009 MAC Championship and the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.

“It’s just hard being back in the same (post-game press conference) room, same thing again. It’s difficult,” Keller said. “We knew that they were streaky like that, and they made plays when they needed to.”

Ohio opened the game with a drive that ended inside the Huskies’ 30-yard line. Tettleton threw to LaVon Brazill in double coverage, leading to an interception.

But the Bobcats regained possession after Noah Keller picked off a deflected pass from Harnish. Four plays later, Matt Weller connected on a 30-yard field goal.

Ohio extended its lead on its next possession. Wide receiver and former quarterback Phil Bates took the ball on a reverse and threw a spot-on pass to Donte Foster for the touchdown.  It was Ohio’s second reverse play of the drive.

After forcing Northern Illinois to punt for the second time, Ohio composed another drive that ended in a Weller field goal.

That’s when fumbles began to plague the Huskies. Tommy Davis fumbled on the ensuing kickoff return, and Ohio’s Brian Albrecht — wearing No. 62 in honor of the late Marcellis Williamson — recovered.

Tettleton threw his second interception on a forced throw, and Harnish found Nathan Palmer in Ohio territory for the Huskies’ first big play of the game. But Harnish fumbled away the ball at the 10-yard line.

The Bobcats marched back down the field and scored on an 18-yard run by Tettleton. Ohio’s defense stopped the Huskies before they even got started, and the Bobcats entered the locker room with a 20-0 lead. It marked the first time all season Northern Illinois had been shut out in the first half.

“I think there was confidence, but obviously we knew we were playing a very good football team and they were capable of putting points on the board,” coach Frank Solich said. “We were going to have to come out and play the second half like we did the first half.

“And we did not get that done.”

The teams switched roles in the second half, with Harnish returning to his typically potent production and Ohio accomplishing little on offense.

A resilient Huskies squad overcame another turnover early in the third quarter to get on the board. After a fumble on its opening drive, Northern Illinois forced Ohio to punt. Harnish assembled a scoring drive that covered 77 yards. He capped the series with a 38-yard pass to Palmer, who barely stretched the ball across the plane of the goal line.

After another Paul Hershey punt, Northern Illinois had the chance to cut the lead to one score. Ohio’s defense stepped up to force a three-and-out. Tettleton and running back Donte Harden kept the ball in the Bobcats’ hands for the remainder of the quarter.

Tettleton broke for a 22-yard run to open the final frame, but a false start penalty stalled the drive. Weller missed a 36-yard field goal attempt, marking his first failed try from inside 40 yards this season.

Just as the Huskies appeared to be driving, they stalled at Ohio’s 40-yard line. But Ohio lost nose guard Neal Huynh to a left leg injury during the series, and his top replacement, Corey Hasting, had been ejected for punching a player during an earlier fumble recovery.

The Bobcats picked up a first down on their next drive before Tettleton again tried to connect with Brazill in double coverage. The play resulted in Northern Illinois’ third interception of the game.

The Huskies moved into Ohio territory, where Harnish found Martel Moore for a 32-yard touchdown reception. But placekicker Mathew Sims missed the extra point to make the game 20-13.

Northern Illinois got the ball back with less than five minutes to play. Huynh re-entered the game as the Huskies prepared for their last sure shot to tie the game.

And they came through.

Harnish tossed his third touchdown of the day, once again connecting with Moore, and Sims made the extra point to tie the contest at 20.

Ohio continued to fall apart on its next drive. Tettleton muffed the first-down snap, paving the way for another punt.

With all of the momentum, Harnish opened the series with a 27-yard completion to Perez Ashford, who made an acrobatic catch in double coverage. Two plays later, Harnish found Moore to get the Huskies in field goal range.

Solich iced Sims twice before the kicker nailed his only field goal of the game, giving Northern Illinois the win and likely a bid to the Bowl in Mobile, Ala. The win avenged a tough championship game loss to Miami last season.

The 20-point deficit was the largest hole the Huskies have escaped this season and the second-largest in MAC Championship history. Marshall came back from being 23 points down to beat Western Michigan in the 1999 title game.

“Since I’ve got here, this is kind of what we’ve done,” Northern Illinois coach Dave Doeren said. “I’m really glad we can raise a banner for our 28-year void.

“I tell them all week, ‘It’s not about Ohio. It’s about you.’ Gameday’s not about talking. It’s about playing.”

For the first time this season, Tettleton finished with three interceptions and no touchdowns. He threw for 218 yards on 18-of-31 passing. Harnish passed for three scores and 250 yards in addition to picking up 31 yards on the ground.

Palmer was the Huskies’ top receiver with four receptions for 115 yards and two touchdowns.

The Bobcats likely will receive a bowl and will have a chance to improve upon their 0-5 all-time bowl record.

“We had plenty of chances,” Solich said. “(We) just did not play well enough with those chances to make it work for us in the second half.”

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