Missed opportunities: How CMU allowed NIU to crawl back from 18-point deficit, steal road win


Detroit junior Devonni Reed, left, and St. Ignacio senior Gage Kreski, right, stop the runner as he goes flying through the air during a game against NIU on Saturday, Oct. 23 at Kelly/Shorts Stadium.

For a moment, Central Michigan couldn't quiet the crowd even if it wanted to. 

Wide receiver Kalil Pimpleton stood facing the student section, waving his arms downward. His team was a made field goal away from stealing a win and the students who stayed knew it. Players on the Northern Illinois sideline played into this, raising their arms and encouraging CMU fans to make noise in an attempt to distract the Chippewa field goal unit. 

A moment later, those same NIU players made the only sounds that echoed through an otherwise silent Kelly/Shorts Stadium. 

In between those two moments, CMU long snapper Franklin Lama's snap snuck past holder Luke Elzinga. The Huskies recovered the CMU mishap, sealing their victory and celebrating so ferociously that two separate unsportsmanlike conduct penalties were issued. 

There's an old adage surrounding athletics that games are never decided by one play. Saturday was no different, as a series of events led to the game-ending miscue that will define the Chippewas' 39-38 loss to NIU. 

"We knew that (NIU) was physical," said coach Jim McElwain. "They did a heck of a job. They took care of the ball, we didn't get any turnovers. And at the end of the day, we had an opportunity to win it and we didn't." 

The Chippewas, for the second straight game, came out firing on offense. A 66-yard touchdown run by Lew Nichols III set the tone, and a 22-yard scoring strike from quarterback Daniel Richardson to receiver JaCorey Sullivan made it 28-10 with 4:59 remaining in the first half. 

Yet, it was the Huskies' ensuing drive that set the tone for the rest of the afternoon. After two fourth down conversions, one of which came after CMU defensive lineman Jacques Bristol jumped offsides, NIU quarterback Rocky Lombardi hit Trayvon Rudolph for a 15-yard touchdown. A two-point conversion made the score 28-18 heading into the locker room. 

What felt like a CMU blowout was just a 10-point game at the break.

Even after the Chippewas stopped NIU on downs to start the third quarter and scored again to make it 35-18, the game felt far from secure. Lombardi launched a 75-yard touchdown pass to Rudolph on the very next play. Another two-point conversion cut the Chippewa lead to nine points with 9:43 left in the third quarter. 

"I feel like, in a way, we had a lack of focus," said CMU defensive end Troy Hairston II. "We allowed the score, and that number, determine how we were gonna come out in the second half. I don't feel like we came out, in that second half, the way the Chippewas do it." 

After that first stop, the Chippewas were unable to hold the Huskies scoreless. NIU followed its one-play touchdown drive with a field goal, then a touchdown from Clint Ratkovitch to take a 36-35 lead with 10:47 remaining. 

The Chippewa offense failed to generate points after that possession until midway through the fourth. CMU answered two straight NIU scoring drives with punts, unable to capitalize on chances to extinguish the rally.  The Chippewas did answer after trailing for the first time, getting a 38-yard field goal from kicker Marshall Meeder to retake the lead. 

The defense pinned NIU into a fourth-and-1 from the CMU 43 on the next possession. Yet again, they couldn't get off the field, as the Huskies ran a reverse with Rudolph for seven yards and a new set of downs.

The defense eventually forced a field goal, as NIU backup kicker Kanon Woodill knocked a 26-yard attempt through the uprights. Chippewa quarterback Daniel Richardson and the offense had 54 seconds to get the team in field goal range. 

They did just that. 

Richardson hit Nichols for 15 yards, Pimpleton for 12 and Dallas Dixon for 22. After a short, three-yard flip to Joel Wilson, the crowd cheered as the field goal unit took the field. 

The euphoria lasted seconds, as what would've been the game winning field goal never left the turf. The snap squirted past Elzinga, who dove after the ball in a last ditch effort. NIU's Jordan Gandy recovered the ball as the visitors sideline erupted. 

Glory, in an instant, turned to dismay for the Chippewas.