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N. Illinois 38, Arkansas St. 20

MOBILE, Ala. (AP) - The game couldn't have started much better for Arkansas State. Unfortunately, it couldn't have ended much worse.

The Red Wolves took an early 13-point lead at the Bowl on Sunday night only to watch Northern Illinois score 31 unanswered points in a 38-20 loss at Ladd-Peebles Stadium.

``We had a couple of big plays early,'' Arkansas State receiver Taylor Stockemer said. ``But we just made a couple mistakes and got out of rhythm and I don't think we ever got it back.''

The loss ended Arkansas State's (10-3) nine-game winning streak. The Sun Belt champions couldn't overcome five turnovers - including three interceptions thrown by Ryan Aplin.

Aplin completed 30 of 58 passes for 353 yards and one touchdown. Stockemer caught 11 passes for 185 yards and a touchdown.

Northern Illinois' Martel Moore caught eight passes for 224 yards and a touchdown. The 6-foot-2, 182-pound junior from San Antonio, Texas, had 523 yards receiving all season until Sunday's monster performance. Quarterback Chandler Harnish was more than happy to cede the spotlight.

``This is a storybook ending,'' Harnish said. ``The way we came out and beat a great Arkansas State team is something we ought to be proud of.''

The late-night game ended with a midnight celebration for the Huskies at midfield. It sure didn't start so well.

It was the third time this season Northern Illinois (11-3) rallied from a double-digit deficit to win.

Harnish completed 18 of 36 passes for 274 yards and two touchdowns in his final college game. He came in as the nation's top rushing quarterback, averaging 106.3 yards per game, but was limited to minus-3 yards on the ground because of an ankle injury he sustained in the second quarter.

Arkansas State jumped out early, but the score was almost disappointing considering the Red Wolves had to settle for two short field goals instead of touchdowns. Brian Davis connected on kicks from 32 and 36 yards before Aplin scored on a 2-yard run.

The missed opportunities kept Northern Illinois close, and after some early trouble on offense, the Huskies made their move.

``We stopped beating ourselves and started playing our game,'' NIU coach Dave Doeren said. ``Our coaches called an aggressive game and we made a couple of plays that swung the momentum. Two scores is nothing for us. We've been down way more than that this year.''

Harnish hit Perez Ashford on a 9-yard touchdown pass two plays after a disputed spot on fourth down kept the drive alive, pulling the Huskies to 13-7 just before the end of the first quarter.

The Huskies briefly lost Harnish because of his injured left ankle early in the second quarter, but backup Jordan Lynch engineered a seven-play, 78-yard drive that ended with his 3-yard touchdown run. That gave NIU a 14-13 lead with 4:49 left in the first half.

Harnish returned to lead the Huskies on another touchdown drive just before halftime. Doeren gambled on the final play of the drive, going for the touchdown with 2 seconds remaining instead of a point-blank field goal try. It worked, as Jamal Womble plowed forward for a 1-yard touchdown that gave Northern Illinois a 21-13 halftime lead.

Arkansas State was called for a pivotal roughing-the-kicker penalty on a fourth down that extended the drive.

Arkansas State was coached by David Gunn, who took over in an interim role after Hugh Freeze left for Mississippi. Both Freeze and the Red Wolves' new coach - former Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn - watched the game at Ladd-Peebles Stadium, but were powerless to help as Northern Illinois rallied for the victory.

``Our kids came ready to play, and I am proud of them,'' Gunn said. ``Many things have transpired over the last 30 days, but these young men have shown great resolve over that period of time.''

Arkansas State briefly regained momentum early in the third quarter after Chaz Scales intercepted Harnish's pass, but Northern Illinois got the ball back three plays later when Jhony Faustin intercepted Aplin. On the next play, Harnish threw a 43-yard touchdown pass to Moore to extend the lead to 28-13.

Arkansas State briefly pulled within 31-20 on Aplin's 16-yard touchdown pass to Stockemer, but Northern Illinois responded with an interception that Dechane Durante returned for a touchdown to put the game out of reach.

Northern Illinois' victory helped the MAC finish with a 4-1 record in bowl games.


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