The Northern Illinois University Huskies fought off a third-quarter comeback by UNLV to claim a 48-34 victory over the Rebels and improve to 3-0 on the 2014 season Saturday night at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas.
After extending a 21-5 halftime lead to 28-5 on its first drive of the second quarter, the Huskies saw UNLV come all the way back to tie the game, 34-34 with 9:18 to play. But NIU's playmakers on offense and defense answered the challenge over the final minutes for the hard-fought win.
"We knew it was going to be a four-quarter battle," said NIU Head Coach Rod Carey. "I'm proud of our guys. They fought through adversity. Give [UNLV] credit, they fought back and played a heck of a third-quarter. Give us credit, we made plays when we had to."
UNLV tied the game on a nine-yard pass from quarterback Blake Decker to Shaquille Murray-Lawrence to finish off a seven-play, 75-yard drive. One play earlier, Decker had hit Kendal Keys on a 41-yard bomb to the nine. A two-point conversion pass to Devante Davis completed the comeback.
The Huskies, who extended their nation-leading 17th straight road game, were not done. In his first career start, sophomore quarterback Drew Hare calmly set the NIU offense. After a pair of Keith Harris Jr. runs netted a first down, Hare set his sights on senior receiver Da'Ron Brown down the sidelines. Brown out-leaped the defender, spun and took off for a 54-yard touchdown and the Huskies were back on top, 41-34, with 8:23 to play.
Then it was the NIU defense's turn to thwart UNLV's game-tying drive attempt. With Decker narrowly avoiding a ferocious Huskie rush to hit receivers all over the field, the Rebels drove down to the NIU seven. On first and goal, Decker targeted All-America candidate Davis in the end zone. Davis, who caught six passes for 150 yards and two scores in the game, was covered by junior Paris Logan, who turned at the perfect moment, and tipped the ball into the diving arms of NIU safety Marlon Moore.
"I think [UNLV's Davis] is as good as there is in the country at wide receiver," Carey said. "He and Paris had been going at it all night and [Davis] had probably been getting the better of him for the most part. But then, there's Paris. He made a great tip and Marlon made a great catch. Give our kids credit, they were focused when they need to be."
The Huskies got the ball with 5:22 to play and used the rushing of big back Cameron Stingily and Hare, and a big third-down completion to Aregeros Turner to drive down the field. Stingily's 22-yard run put NIU on the UNLV four-yard line with 2:18 to play and he scored his first touchdown of the year three plays later, giving the Huskies a 48-34 margin.
Hare completed 18-of-28 passes for 285 yards and three touchdowns, and added 74 rushing yards on 14 carries with a score. Stingily led the Huskies' 331-yard rushing attack with 102 yards on 17 carries and two scores. Brown recorded his second consecutive 100-yard receiving game with six catches for 138 yards.
After NIU took a 28-5 lead on Hare's 12-yard touchdown run on NIU's initial drive of the second half, the third quarter belonged to UNLV. The Rebels outscored the Huskies 21-3 during the rest of the quarter as Decker hit Davis for scores of 26 and 53 yards, and Murray-Lawrence scored on a two-yard run. The latter score came after NIU committed its first turnover of the season when Hare fumbled and UNLV recovered and returned it to the Huskie 10-yard line. After the Murray-Lawrence run, NIU led just 31-26.
Wedel hit his second field goal of the game - from 33 yards out - to extend the lead to 34-26 with 11:11 to play in the game before UNLV began its game-tying drive.
Hare and the Huskie offense put together a textbook two-minute drive to give NIU a 21-5 lead heading into halftime. After UNLV missed a 33-yard field goal, NIU marched 80 yards in 10 plays and 2:32 with Hare hitting Brescacin and Brown on completions of eight and 11 yards, respectively. Two plays later, Hare and Brown hooked up again, this time for 26 yards to the UNLV 31-yard line. Hare converted a third and eight with a 14-yard run and two plays later, hit Brescacin for the 10-yard touchdown.
UNLV started the scoring with a 25-yard field goal by kicker Jonathan Leiva. The Rebels drove 50 yards on eight plays in 2:54 to become the first opponent to score first on the Huskies this year.
NIU responded immediately with a 15-play, 76-yard drive. Hare hit Chad Beebe for 21 yards for the biggest play of the drive, and Stingily scored his first touchdown of the season on a five-yard run to give the Huskies a 7-3 lead.
The Huskies began their next drive inside their own one-yard line after a 41-yard punt by UNLV was downed, and a penalty in the end zone quickly led to a UNLV safety.
UNLV fell to 1-2 on the year. In addition to extending its road winning streak, NIU stretched its regular season win streak to 26 games.
Next Saturday, NIU travels to Fayetteville, Ark. for a match-up with the Arkansas Razorbacks. The game kicks off at 6 p.m. (CT) and will be televised on ESPNU.