DEKALB, Ill. – Chandler Harnish won't forget the lousy plays. That's what makes him a great college quarterback.
The rest of us will toss his miscues aside and relish the incredible runs, throws and resilience Harnish displayed in leading Northern Illinois to a 41-38 win over Ball State on Tuesday at Huskie Stadium.
We'll talk about the comeback from 17 points down. We'll talk about the game-winning drive that included one pass completion while Harnish was halfway horizontal in the grip of a tackle. We'll talk about his ridiculous numbers: 26-of-36 passing for 338 yards, plus 181 yards rushing.
Harnish will simply go back to work. Northern Illinois (8-3, 6-1 Mid-American Conference) is one win away from the MAC Championship game. He's pressing forward.
“I'll watch the film and I won't be happy,” Harnish said. “I think the stats will kind of lie. People will think I had a great game, but by our standards, no way. …It was not the cleanest game by any means. But this is a bottom-line business. We won the game, and I'm ecstatic about that.”
I've been watching Harnish play since he was at Norwell High School. He was a good quarterback then, already a tremendous team leader. Now, as a fifth-year senior, he's one of the nation's best college players.
I think he'll get an NFL shot. I think he should get an NFL shot. He's not ready to think beyond the next game – another attribute that makes him so good.
“It's the best time of my life right now,” Harnish said. “You might have a few heart attacks along the way. I think we've taken a few years off Huskie fans over the last few weeks, but we're coming out on top and finding a way.”
Gaudy statistics aside, and they were quite gaudy – Harnish led Northern to 710 total yards and 43 first downs and his 519 total yards were a school record – this game was one that tested Harnish's ability to deal with adversity.
It hit early when, fighting for extra yardage in the first quarter, Harnish had the ball knocked loose and Ball State safety Joshua Howard picked it up for a 92-yard touchdown return and a 14-0 Ball State lead.
Harnish said he'd have called that a “bonehead play” if he were watching it on television.
“You see a play like that, you think ‘How could the quarterback do that?' ” Harnish said. “ ‘He tried to do too much. He tried to spin.' That's exactly what I did. Right when I fumbled, I thought, ‘This could be bad.' ”
It was bad, and Ball State (6-5, 4-3) is so improved under first-year coach Pete Lembo that the Cardinals will seize on any openings. Lembo gambled and prevailed on a 4th-down touchdown pass and a fake punt that led to a score. By the third quarter, Ball State had built a 31-14 lead with heavy momentum.
Northern would score the next 21 points: a 52-second drive capped by a 49-yard Harnish score; a 10-play, 92-yard scoring drive; and an eight-play, 74-yard drive that ended with Harnish hitting Nathan Palmer on a bubble screen pass for a score and a 35-31 Northern Illinois lead.
“The word of the week for us was ‘faith,' ” Harnish said. “We got down 31-14 and I felt like that really came into play.”
Ball State wasn't done, regaining the lead 38-35 early in the fourth quarter.
With 6:25 left, Harnish made his last mistake of the game, a throw that was picked off by Ball State's Sean Baker and returned for a would-be touchdown. But Ball State linebacker Tony Martin had driven Harnish into the ground on the play and drew a penalty.
“A lot of times they don't call that,” Harnish said. “I saw that yellow flag sitting there and I thought that's got to be roughing the passer. It was just complete relief. The game could have went the other way in a hurry.”
Instead of a 10-point deficit, Harnish drove for a game-tying field goal.
A defensive stop by Northern Illinois then set up the scenario every quarterback loves: The clock had 1:44 left. Northern Illinois had the ball on its own 20.
Harnish went to work. He ran for 13 yards. He hit Perez Ashford for a 17-yard gain while he was being knocked to the ground. He ran for another eight. He hit Martel Moore rolling right to put the ball on the Ball State 24. He ran, set the offense, spiked the ball with 14 seconds left. And then Harnish hit Palmer wide right to the Ball State 17.
Northern Illinois kicker Mathew Sims hit the 34-yarder and the place went crazy. Sims said he'd never kicked a game winner in his life. “I'm glad I didn't know that,” Harnish said.
“Nothing's better (than a game-winning drive),” Harnish said. “I haven't had a ton of those in my career. A lot of times I've ended up on the other side, losing games. To get one and win with a game-winning kick against a quality opponent and a well-coached team, it's very, very satisfying.
“But we've still got work to do.”
So Harnish will go back to work.
His play is his work. And even on his record-setting “off” days, Harnish gets the job done.