DeKALB – Eastern Illinois and its high-powered offense pulled out all the tricks and gave Northern Illinois everything it had in the Huskies’ home opener on Saturday.
EIU took a late lead as quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo found Erik Lora in the back corner of the end zone for 10-yard touchdown and a three-point lead with 9:53 remaining.
But on the next possession, NIU running back Cameron Stingily rumbled 46 yards into the EIU red zone, setting up an eight-yard touchdown run by Keith Harris Jr., and the Huskies held on to win, 43-39.
It was the 22nd consecutive win at Huskie Stadium for NIU (3-0).
“I hope you guys believe me now that that’s the best team we’ve played to date,” NIU coach Rod Carey said. “That team is fantastic. I have an unbelievable respect for them.”
Eastern Illinois (3-1) wasted little time getting on the board and EIU coach Dino Babers made it clear the Panthers weren’t going to play it safe, either.
Garoppolo completed seven of his first eight passes, including a 14-yard touchdown to Lora, leading the Panthers on a 75-yard touchdown drive on its first possession.
After EIU recovered the onside kick, Garoppolo fired a 44-yard touchdown to Adam Drake to put Eastern Illinois up, 13-0.
“You don’t beat a team like this playing straight up and playing by the rules,” Babers said. “If you’re going to come up and beat a team like this you’re going to have to bend the rules a little bit and that’s what we were doing.”
The Panthers forced a quick three-and-out, converted its second fourth down of the night, and Garoppolo found Keiondre Gober for a 13-yard touchdown and a 20-0 lead.
“I don’t know if it was a slow start by us as much as a fast start by them,” Carey said.
NIU’s offense responded with a 60-yard scoring drive, capped by Stingily’s 5-yard rushing touchdown. After NIU’s defense got a stop, Stingily leaped over an EIU defender and stumbled in for another 5-yard touchdown to cut the Panther lead to seven.
Stingily finished with 134 rushing yards on the night while Jordan Lynch ended with 235 passing yards and 189 rushing yards.
Early in the second quarter, Lynch escaped multiple tacklers, spun away from another defender for a 36-yard run. Lynch then found Luke Eakes for a 3-yard touchdown pass and a 20-20 tie.
A late Huskie drive ended in a Mathew Sims field goal to give the Huskies their first lead of the game, 23-20, at the half.
“We tried to slow down the [EIU] run first, that was the first thing we had to do,” Carey said. “You have to get [Garoppolo] in situations where you know he’s going to throw so you can come and get after him some.”
Harris’ nine-yard touchdown run in the third quarter put NIU up 10.
EIU ended NIU’s run of 30 consecutive points with two Garoppolo touchdown passes sandwiched around a Sims field goal, tying the score, 33-33, early in the fourth quarter.
NIU announced attendance at 23,595, the first sellout since 2003.
“It was an emotional game,” Ward said. “The crowd gave us a lot of enthusiasm.”