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Smith's defensive play helps Northern Illinois rally past Ohio, 24-21

All-American has pair of sacks, 2 fumble recoveries

DeKALB, Ill. – Led by All-American Sutton Smith, Northern Illinois’ defense made big plays to help lift the offense to a pair fourth-quarter scores and rallied the Huskies past Ohio, 24-21, on Saturday at Huskie Stadium.

Ohio led 21-9 following a Nathan Rourke 11-yard touchdown pass to tight end Connor Brown on the final play of the fourth quarter but could not hold the lead. After Marcus Childers’ 10-yard touchdown run got Northern Illinois to within five, Smith’s strip sack of Rourke set up the go-ahead touchdown.

"We cannot hand out turnovers and expect to win," Ohio coach Frank Solich said.

The Bobcats (3-3, 1-1 Mid-American Conference) were looking to answer Northern Illinois’ score, getting a 21-yard completion from Rourke to Papi White and a 13-yard run by Rourke to move to the Huskies 40-yard line, but Smith came unabated at Rourke and recovered the fumble he forced.

"The key to our success was just being relentless," Smith said. "If they moved the ball or got a first down, we didn't flinch. On the sack-fumble, I just saw that it was a pass and it was time to jump the ball."

Last year’s MAC Defensive Player of the Year with 29.5 tackles for loss, it was Smith’s second fumble recovery of the game and his second sack. He also was credited with another half tackle for loss that helped stop Ohio’s final drive.

Marcus Childers put Northern Illinois (4-3, 4-0 MAC) in business right away following the turnover with a 21-yard completion on first down, and he ran for 20 yards on a second-and-18 play after he was sacked. Ohio forced a third-and-6 from the 16, but pass interference was called, and Marcus Jones scored from 2 yards out. A trick play conversion pass made it a three-point game.

Smith was in the backfield to hit Maleek Irons for a loss of 5 yards on Ohio’s next possession, and Rourke threw incomplete on third-and-15.

The Bobcats punted with still nearly four minutes left and all three timeouts but did not get the ball back. Childers ran for 32 yards on a third-and-7 play, and then on third-and-1, Tre Harbison put the game away with a 6-yard run.

Childers was not strong passing the ball for Northern Illinois but provided its best option on offense with his legs, running 23 times for 169 yards. Meanwhile, the Huskies held the explosive Rourke in check on the ground as he netted 0 yards on 10 carries.

Rourke did find success passing the ball, going 15 of 23 for 275 yards with two touchdowns. His biggest pass plays were to freshman Isiah Cox, who had three catches for 147 yards.

Cox’s 70-yard reception following a broken tackle set up A.J. Ouellette’s second-quarter 2-yard touchdown run that gave Ohio a 7-3 lead, and he had a 56-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter, with Rourke avoiding pressure to create enough time to make a big play. That gave the Bobcats a 14-9 advantage.

A pair of third-quarter turnovers did not cost Ohio the way it did in the fourth quarter. Smith recovered an Ouellette fumble forced by Trayshon Foster’s hit on the opening possession of the second half, and after a punt, Foster picked off Rourke. The Bobcats’ defense came up with a stop that led to Cox’s go-ahead touchdown. Foster later was ejected following a targeting penalty.

Andrew Gantz kicked a 36-yard field goal that gave Northern Illinois a 3-0 lead in the first quarter. Ouellette’s touchdown run came following two third-and-goal pass interference calls against Northern Illinois, but the Huskies managed to regain the lead before halftime on D.J. Brown’s 30-yard touchdown that followed a 30-yard run by Childers.

Neither team got much production out of its running backs. Jones led Northern Illinois with 33 yards on eight carries, while Irons had 11 runs for 30 yards. Ouellette had just 16 yards on 11 carries against the Huskies’ stout defense. Ohio was held to a season-low 46 yards rushing on 32 carries.

"It is clear we need to get better at running plays," Solich said. "It is a necessity that we know how to run the ball."

Hagan paced Ohio’s defense with 10 tackles.

Kyle Pugh made nine tackles for Northern Illinois, while Josh Corcoran backed up Smith’s pressure by making two tackles for loss, including a sack.

The Bobcats have given the Huskies their only two home MAC losses in their last 31 games.

Ohio hosts Bowling Green for homecoming at 2 p.m. Saturday at Peden Stadium.

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