WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Northern Illinois doesn't have to say "almost" anymore.
The Huskies had competed but fallen just short against BCS teams Tennessee, Minnesota and Wisconsin the last two seasons, and NIU had grown tired of settling for moral victories against bigger programs. The Mid-American Conference school finally broke through Saturday, holding off a rally to beat Purdue 28-21 for its first victory over a Big Ten school since 1988 and its first win against a BCS program since 2003.
The Huskies entered the game 1-32-1 all time against the Big Ten, but afterward they talked like a team that expected to win all along.
"We came back against Wisconsin (in a 28-20 loss), and we felt like we could beat anybody at that time," NIU quarterback Chandler Harnish said. "We improved from Week 1 to Week 2 against Western Illinois. The way we were playing, we felt we could play against anybody."
The victory came a week after fellow MAC member Central Michigan beat Michigan state of the Big Ten.
Harnish said the MAC is "better than what most people think. We have beaten some good teams the past couple of weeks. We are a little bit underrated, but that's OK. I like it like that."
Me'co Brown ran for 150 yards and a touchdown, and Chad Spann rushed for 80 yards and 2 TDs for the Huskies (2-1).
Purdue quarterback Joey Elliott passed for 188 yards and ran for 68 yards and 2 touchdowns. But the Huskies held Ralph Bolden, the nation's leading rusher after two games, to 64 yards.
"I think the credit goes to the defensive staff - coach (Tracy) Claeys and his defensive group and the players," said Northern Illinois coach Jerry Kill. "The players have bought in since we've been here, and they've played hard-nosed football. They played very disciplined defensive football against a very good offensive line and a great running back."
Purdue (1-2) looked sluggish one week after taking Oregon to the limit in a 38-36 loss. The Huskies outgained the Boilermakers 454 yards to 335 and kept the ball for 41:40.
"The big mistakes killed us," Purdue linebacker Jason Werner said. "We gave up too many big plays. We couldn't get ourselves off the field so the offense could do its job."
Purdue trailed 28-21 in the fourth quarter and expected to get the ball back with about 3:30 left after forcing Northern Illinois into a fourth down, but the Huskies resorted to trickery. Justin Anderson took a direct snap on a fake punt 11 yards for a first down. NIU eventually punted but didn't leave Purdue enough time to mount a threat.
"A lot of times you get fired for those things, but you know, you're on the road, and in my life, nothing's ever been given to you," Kill said. "You've got to fight for it."
Harnish agreed with the call.
"Very gutsy call," he said. "But that's the way you have to be in the MAC if you're going to play Big Ten teams. You have to go for it. We went for it, and that ultimately helped us win the game."
Purdue's Aaron Valentin started the scoring with a weaving, bobbing, 62-yard punt return for a touchdown in the first quarter.
Spann's 1-yard touchdown run tied the score in the second quarter, and Brown's 67-yard touchdown run gave the Huskies a 14-7 lead.
Valentin fumbled a punt that NIU recovered at the Purdue 35, but Spann fumbled it right back to Purdue.
Valentin fumbled again on his next return, and NIU recovered at the Purdue 23. The Huskies took advantage this time when Harnish completed a 10-yard touchdown pass to Reed Cunningham to make it 21-7 at halftime.
Purdue reached the NIU 28-yard line on its second possession of the third quarter, but the Huskies stuffed Elliott on a fourth-and-1 to stop the threat.
NIU came back with a 13-play, 62-yard drive that ended with Spann's 11-yard touchdown run for a 28-7 lead with 2:43 left in the third quarter.
Elliott, not known for his mobility, turned a broken play into a 58-yard touchdown run to cut Northern Illinois' lead to 28-14 heading into the fourth quarter.
Elliott led the Boilermakers on an 11-play, 80-yard drive, finishing it with a 6-yard touchdown run that cut NIU's lead to 28-21 with 5:42 to play.
But Purdue's offense clicked too late.
"We started flat, and there's no excuse for it," Purdue tight end Kyle Adams said. "It's not on the coaches, it's on us. We didn't get the job done in the first half. We played better in the second half, but you can't wait that long and expect to win."