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Northern Illinois ‘D’ helps clinch spot in MAC title game

Updated: December 27, 2011 8:09AM

DEKALB, Ill. — Picked on like a red-headed stepchild for much of the season, the Northern Illinois defense finally had its day.

When defensive backs Sean Evans and Demetrius Stone teamed up to break up a long pass intended for Eastern Michigan tight end Garrett Hoskins on fourth-and-35 late in the fourth quarter, it preserved an 18-12 victory Friday in front of 13,012 at Huskie Stadium. It also clinched back-to-back Mid-American Conference West titles for the Huskies (9-3, 7-1).

The play followed consecutive sacks of Eastern quarterback Alex Gillett by Alan Baxter and Sean Progar after the Eagles (6-6, 4-4) had driven to the NIU 31 and helped send the Huskies back to Detroit for next Friday’s MAC title game against East Division champ Ohio.

“I know it wasn’t what we wanted to do offensively,” NIU coach Dave Doeren said. “Our defense won the game for us, and that’s why it’s a team sport. They got after the quarterback at the end, and on fourth-and-whatever, exorcised some demons from last year.”

A late fourth-down conversion on a tipped pass in a similar scenario helped Miami pull out a win over NIU in the final minute of the 2010 title game at Ford Field.

The difference Friday was a 68-yard touchdown run by quarterback Chandler Harnish, who also threw a first-quarter touchdown pass of 54 yards to Willie Clark. In between, the senior and his prolific offense struggled.

“It was third-and-one, we just needed a yard,” Harnish said of the big gainer in which he blasted through an arm tackle by middle linebacker Colin Weingrad and found himself in the clear. “There were a couple of times I felt I was ready to break one. I broke the tackle, and it was there. Credit to the offensive line. They set it up for me.”

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