DEKALB, Ill.- Senior quarterback Austen Everson (Brentwood, Tenn.) completed 23-of-31 passes for 322 yards and three touchdowns as the Bobcats defeated Northern Illinois 35-23 Saturday afternoon at Huskie Stadium in Ohio's Mid-American Conference opener.
Everson led the Ohio offense to 510 yards of total offense, the most since the Bobcats amassed 518 yards against KentState last season. Everson's 322 yards through the air were the most since Dennis Swearingen had 355 against Ball State in 1985. Junior running back Kalvin McRae (Decatur, Ga.) joined Everson with a big day, running 17 times for 106 yards and two touchdowns while catching five passes for 98 yards and another touchdown. The 100-yard game was the seventh of McRae's career, tying him for 10th in Ohio history. Everson's 300-yard performance is the first form a Bobcat since Sam Vink had 310 yards against Western Michigan in 1993. Everson became the first Bobcat to throw three touchdown passes in the same game since Ryan Hawk in the 2004 season opener. With the big performance, Everson moved into eighth place in the Ohio record book in career passing yards with 2,601. He also moved into eighth place in career completions with 199 and set career highs in passing yards, completions and touchdowns in the win.
"We put it all together," Everson said. "Running the ball and throwing the ball, it was just a great game all around."
Everson hit a variety of targets in the win, led by McRae's five catches and 98 yards. Senior receiver William Norwood (Racine, Wis.) grabbed four passes for a career high 87 yards and his first career touchdown while senior tight end Rudy Sylvan (Suisan City, Calif.) set career highs with five receptions and 51 yards and caught his third career touchdown pass. Junior Chido Nwokocha (Elk Grove, Calif.) caught four passes for 27 yards while senior Scott Mayle (Philippi, W.Va.) made two receptions to move into a tie for 10th place in Ohio history with 86 career catches.
"This was quite a turnaround from the first game," Head Coach Frank Solich said. "I knew we were capable of being a good offensive team both running and throwing the ball."
Defensively, the Bobcats did not create a turnover but played well enough for the win. Junior Todd Koenig (Nanty-Glo, Pa.) led the way with eight tackles while senior Matt Muncy (Miamisburg, Ohio) recorded six tackles and Ohio's only sack of the game. Junior Tony Ward (Beaumont, Texas) and senior T.J. Wright (Beaumont, Texas) each tallied seven tackles in the win. Northern Illinois' Garrett Wolfe, the nation's top returning rusher, finished with 196 yards on 24 carries but did not record a reception. Quarterback Phil Horvath completed just 19-of-41 passes and tallied 261 yards and a touchdown through the air.
"You're not going to shut them down," Solich said. "So to hang in there and keep making plays like they (the defense) did today was crucial."
After an Ohio punt on the opening drive, the Huskies missed a 47-yard field goal to keep the game in a scoreless tie. Following another Bobcat punt, Wolfe put NIU on the board with a 21-yard touchdown scamper for the first score of the game. Wolfe ran for 38 yards on the six-play, 73-yard scoring drive and Chris Nendick converted on the point-after for a 7-0 lead.
The Bobcats answered right back with a quick strike of their own. Three plays into the ensuing Ohio drive, Everson connected on a 63-yard touchdown strike to Norwood. The play was the longest pass play for Ohio since Oct. 2, 2004 and longest play from scrimmage since Oct. 22, 2005. Senior Matt Lasher (Copley, Ohio) added the extra point to make the score 7-7 and complete the four-play, 80-yard touchdown drive. Everson also completed an 11-yard pass on the drive for a first down.
The Huskies reacted to Ohio's quick strike with some big plays of their own. After a 41-yard kick return, Wolf made his impact felt with a 46-yard touchdown sprint to put the Huskies back on top. Nendick's kick was good and NIU took a 14-7 lead late in the first quarter.Northern Illinois extended the lead midway through the second period, taking advantage of good field position following a Bobcat fumble. After Horvath converted a third-and-six with a 19-yard pass, Nendick nailed a 36-yard field goal to give the Huskies a 17-7 advantage.
Ohio was able to close the deficit back to three points with just 20 seconds left before halftime, using a 10-play, 69-yard drive to make the score 17-14. Everson hooked up with Sylvan from 16 yards out for the score. He completed passes of 12, eight and seven yards earlier in the drive to set up the strike to Sylvan just before the half.
The Bobcats took their first lead of the game halfway through the third quarter. After the defense forced a Northern Illinois punt to open the half, Everson led Ohio on a 12-play, 85-yard drive capped off by a four-yard touchdown run from McRae. Everson and the Bobcats were a perfect 3-for-3 on third down conversions on the drive, including a 27-yard strike to Mayle, a nine-yard completion to Sylvan and a two-yard quarterback sneak. McRae set up his own touchdown run with a 15-yard rush just one play before the score. Lasher's third extra point of the afternoon was good and the Bobcats took a 21-17 lead.
McRae found the end zone again after the Bobcat defense forced another NIU punt. With a 17-yard run on the first play of the drive already under his belt, McRae took a shovel pass from Everson and ran it 58 yards all the way to the Northern Illinois end zone for the Bobcats' third unanswered touchdown and a 28-17 lead.
Ohio appeared to be in complete control until NIU got a break at the start of the fourth quarter, when the Huskies recovered a Bobcat fumble. On the first play of the drive, Horvath completed a 45-yard pass completion to get deep in Bobcat territory. After a 10-yard first down run from Wolfe, Horvath connected with Marcus Perez for a 13-yard touchdown pass. NIU's two-point conversion attempt was stifled but the Bobcat lead slipped to 28-23.
After a stalled Ohio drive resulted in a punt, the Huskies took over with less than seven minutes remaining. NIU went back to Wolfe on the first play, who sprung free for 13 yards and was pulled down by his facemask, resulting in an additional 15 yards on the penalty. Horvath followed with a 15-yard completion to get the Huskies into Bobcat territory. After a five-yard run by Wolfe and a pair of incomplete passes, the Huskies faced a fourth-and-five. The Bobcats blitzed and pressured Horvath into another incomplete pass, giving the Bobcats the ball with remaining in the contest.
Ohio put the finishing touches on the victory in the next possession, as they put together a six-play, 67-yard drive capped off by a 24-yard touchdown run by McRae. Lasher converted his fifth extra point on the day to finish the scoring at 35-23.
The win improved the Bobcats to 2-0 on the season for the first time since 1997. The Bobcats, who had not won a game the last 20 times they trailed at the half, broke the trend Saturday with the come-from-behind win. Ohio trailed 17-14 at halftime but scored 21 unanswered points between the second and third quarters. The Huskies came into the game 15-2 at home since the start of the 2003 season.
Ohio will be on the road again next Saturday when they travel to Piscataway, N.J. to battle Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights disposed of Illinois Saturday by a score of 33-0. Game time is set for next Saturday.