Alabama had poor hands (tackling and pass receiving), poor feet (beaten badly in the kicking game and having receivers, runners, and defensive backs falling down), and in coaching.
Although Northern Illinois features one of the best players Alabama will see this year in running back Michael Turner, the loss nevertheless goes down in Crimson Tide history as one of the most embarrassing.
Alabama, now 2-2 on the year, returns to Southeastern Conference play next Saturday hosting Arkansas at 2:30 p.m. CDT in a game to be nationally televised by CBS.
Alabama fell behind by 19-9 with less than seven and a half minutes to play in the game and made a good comeback effort. On a fourth-and-one play the Tide got a 54-yard touchdown run from Shaud Williams to cut the visitors' lead to only three points. Then the Bama defense held and forced a punt. Alabama had to make another fourth down play with just under three minutes to play, and did so. But when Tide quarterback Brodie Croyle lost the handle on the ball on a third-and-three play with just over two minutest to play, Bama had to make a fourth-and-11 to keep its hopes alive. A hurried pass was incomplete and Northern Illinois had only to run out the clock.
Alabama's kicking game, which has been spotty this year, fell down in kick protection Saturday. While a blocked punt did not result in any score, a blocked extra point turned out to be crucial. Alabama scored the first touchdown of the game when Croyle connected with Zach Fletcher on a 28-yard touchdown on the Tide's second possession. However, what is routinely a 7-0 lead was turned into only a 6-2 advantages – a swing of three points in a three-point game. Brian Bostick's extra point kick was blocked, and Northern Illinois' Kevin Woods returned it the length of the field for a two-point defensive score.
The teams swapped second quarter field goals – the Huskies' Steve Azar making a 51-yarder and Bostick connecting on a 35-yard effort – and Bama had a 9-5 halftime lead.
Both teams had two touchdowns and one field goal. The difference was in extra point scoring: four points for Northern Illinois, one point for Alabama.
Northern Illinois took the lead for good in the third quarter when a series of punt exchanges gave the Huskies excellent field position. Northern Illinois drove to the Bama 12-yard line and faced third-and-three. A perfectly executed pass from Josh Haldi to Shantone Powers put the Huskies up by 12-9.
Northern Illinois got its winning points on another third down play. This one, a third-and-eight from the Tide 48, was a Haldi to Dan Sheldon touchdown pass. An Alabama defensive back had good coverage on the play, but slipped down a moment before the ball arrived, allowing an easy score and a 19-9 lead with 7:28 to play.
The Alabama offense has been just missing throughout the night and was on the verge of failing again when the Tide came up with a fourth-and-one at its own 46 with less than six minutes to play. Northern Illinois sold out in an attempt to stop the run by Shaud Williams, and when the Tide senior halfback broke through the first wave he had only to out-run defenders behind him. The 54-yard touchdown run cut the Northern Illinois lead to 19-16 with 5:36 to play.
Alabama's defense, which had a very difficult time tackling Turner all night, got the job done on the next possession, and got the ball back at the Bama 20 with plenty of time, 4:24 to play. Bama made one first down – a short pass to Triandos Luke – on fourth down, but from the 32 with 2:07 to play there was no more fourth down magic.
Shula said, "Obviously it was an extremely disappointing loss. We lost to a very fine team. They did a good job attacking us in all three phases. They came to play and deserved to win. They made plays when they had to and we didn't. They have a great ball-carrier. We had a lot of respect for him going into the game and have more now. We've got to make corrections, and it starts with me. It's a lot tougher to make those corrections after a loss, but that's what we've got to do."
Alabama had given up only 151 yards rushing to its first three opponents. Northern Illinois' Turner had 27 carries for 156 yards.
Alabama had slightly better statistics with 65 plays for 394 yards (6.1 per play) to Northern Illinois' 64 plays for 267 yards (4.2 per play). But in great part because of the kicking game, the Huskies enjoyed better field position. On 12 possessions the average starting position for Northern Illinois was its 32, while on Bama's 12 possessions the average starting spot was the Crimson Tide 19.
While Alabama did not have any turnovers, the one fumble – recovered by Croyle on Bama's next to last play – was instrumental in killing any chance of a comeback win. Croyle appeared to have the ball slip from his hand as he prepared to pass. Alabama's defense did not force a fumble or get an interception. Bama's lack of takeaways – now two fumble recoveries and one interception in four games – is noteworthy.
While Turner h ad 156 yards rushing, the Huskies had net rushing of 118 yards on 40 attempts. Alabama also had net rushing of 118 yards on 26 attempts. The Tide was led by Williams with 13 carries for 96 yards. Haldi completed 16 of 24 passes for 149 yards for Northern Illinois, while Croyle was good on 22 of 39 attempts for 276 yards.
Williams had six receptions for 37 yards, while three receivers had three catches each – Dre Fulgham for 72 yards, Zach Fletcher for 68, and Triandos Luke for 57.
With Bama's blocked punt figured in, the Tide averaged only 33.6 yards on each of its seven punts, while Northern Illinois averaged 46.4 yards per punt on its seven. Additionally, Northern Illinois had 38 yards in punt returns and 53 yards in kickoff runbacks, Alabama only seven yards in punt returns, 41 in kickoff returns.
Penalties had not been a big problem for Alabama early in the year, but the Tide was hurt by eight flags for 72 yards. Northern Illinois was penalized six times for 42 yards.
Northern Illinois was good on seven of 18 third down tries. Bama was successful on six of 17 third down plays and on two of three fourth down situations. The visitors had a slight edge in time of possession, 30:21 to 29:39.