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April 11, 2024

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A party years in the making: celebrating the 20th anniversary of College Gameday, NIU upset

BGSU Athletics

“The one thing that stands out was how miserable the weather was that morning,” BGSU alumnus John Kuhlstand (‘92) said. “It was drizzly and misty and really gloomy when ESPN recorded the show. It was the kind of day where any kind of artificial lighting — traffic lights, the lights on the stadium scoreboard, you name it — looked extra bright, because it was just so dark and gloomy.

Through the mist and gloom, above it all, one set of lights shone brighter than the rest.

20 years ago, ESPN’s ‘College Gameday’ was in town, highlighting a matchup between two of the very best teams in the Mid-American Conference, which was finally beginning to see more recognition on the national stage: Joe Novak’s 12th ranked Northern Illinois Huskies and Gregg Brandon’s 23rd ranked Bowling Green Falcons.

College Gameday began in 1987 just as a college football show on Saturday mornings giving an overview of each of the games going on that day. It wasn’t until 1993, however, when they started visiting college campuses.

It was the very first time since the show’s inception that the traveling set visited a school outside of the traditional Power Five (SEC, ACC, Big 10, Big 12, PAC-12), and the first time they visited a MAC school.

The cherry on top? For the fourth time in the 38 years since it was built, Doyt L. Perry Stadium was sold out, despite the less than optimal conditions.

31,007 Falcon fans were in attendance, ready to cheer the Orange and Brown on to victory.

“It was electric. We were ranked the previous two years, but the Doyt had never been as loud and crazy as it was that day,” said former wide receiver Cole Magner. “On our walk across the fields to get to the Doyt, there would usually be a couple tents set up. That day, there were thousands and thousands of people lining the walk, all with signs and geared up with costumes. We used to stay at a hotel across the street prior to games. When we woke up and looked across the street, six hours before the game, seeing all the people gathered around the Home Depot truck, we knew this game was going to be something different.”

“I remember looking out the hotel window across the street, and I could see the whole Home Depot setup,” former quarterback Josh Harris said. “I remember being so excited. I was pumped, but I had to calm myself down. That was hours and hours before the game, I didn’t want to run out of energy before I got started.”

When ESPN announced the Gameday crew was coming to town, there were lots of emotions amongst fans and members of the football team.

“ESPN was just starting to give the MAC more coverage. Even so, for ESPN to put the national spotlight on the Bowling Green-Northern Illinois game by bringing GameDay to town, putting the game on ESPN on a Saturday afternoon was an incredibly big deal,” Kuhlstrand said. “This had basically never happened. It meant a lot for ESPN to show up here and send the message to the whole country that, yes, we could play good football in the MAC.”

“I don’t remember how, and I don’t remember when (we found out). But it was probably sometime during the week of the game,” Harris said. “I thought, ‘How? How is Gameday coming to Bowling Green?’ After the initial shock, you’re excited to play on that stage, in a big game against NIU in a get-back game after they beat us last year at 8-0.”

This game just meant more for Bowling Green.

That year prior, the 20th-ranked Falcons went into DeKalb with an undefeated, 8-0 record. NIU led 17-3 going into halftime and scored just nine points in the second half, and Bowling Green tried to stage a comeback, but fell short, ending their chance to compete for the MAC title.

“NIU smacked us around for three quarters before we realized there was a football game going on,” Harris said. “There was a lot riding on the game. Talk about controlling your own destiny for the MAC Championship. Against a team that spoiled your season the year before. And to protect your home turf.”

“I went to the game in DeKalb,” former student Noel Blaha said. “NIU’s student section was behind Bowling Green’s sideline – they were throwing pennies and bottles. It actually led to the MAC to make a new rule that said home student sections couldn’t sit behind the visiting sideline.”

The team had this game circled all season. The circumstances were different – Northern Illinois was the undefeated team coming into this matchup, with wins on their resume that included #15 Maryland in College Park, #21 Alabama at Tuscaloosa, and Iowa State – but the mission remained the same.

The excitement for the fans was off the charts. College Gameday, ESPN, sports media’s brightest stars, all here in Bowling Green.

“I was sitting in my dorm thinking, ‘I can’t sleep, I can’t sleep,” said Mike Burtch, who was one of the student managers for the football team. “I ended up going out with some friends at like, 2:30 a.m. to go to the stadium. We were in the second row at the gates. There were like 100 of us out there at 2:30 a.m. going crazy. During the show, [Lee] Corso kept holding up NIU’s helmet to get boos out of the crowd, then held up the BGSU helmet to get us to cheer.”

“The excitement was palpable, through the roof. I remember, between commercials, Chris Fowler was saying this was one of the best receptions they’d had in a while,” Blaha said. “(The) show culminated when Lee put on Freida’s head and the crowd went nuts.”

“When Lee Corso put on that Freddy Falcon head during the show, it was electric. The crowd went bonkers,” Kuhlstrand said. “It confirmed what a lot of us were thinking, that while Northern Illinois was coming in with a higher national ranking, we were good, too, and we had a shot.”

“Before, we’re in the hotel before we left. In our room with Josh Harris and Cornelius McGrady, watching Gameday at BG. Lee Corso put the Falcon head on, I think it kind of validated us on the national stage, that we were a legit team, and that the MAC was a legit conference at that time,” Magner said.

That was the start of the madness at the Doyt.

31,000 strong, all dressed from head to toe in orange, creating more noise than one can fathom.

“The hum of the thunder sticks that they were handing out. Really loud, sea of orange. I just really felt proud to be a Falcon,” said Blaha. “The energy was palpable. Making our way up to our seats, the game was just a butt-whooping from start to finish.”

“When that stadium is full, it sounds different,” Kuhlstrand said. “When there’s 15,18 thousand, you hear applause. But I heard a roar.”

The Falcons got off to a fast start that day. The offense scored twice in the first three minutes of the game, and the defense forced a turnover on the Huskies’ second play from scrimmage.

“It was a very exciting start to the game. It set the tone for the rest of the day. It sucked all the suspense out of what was going to happen, then you just try to turn it into a blowout. Put your foot on their neck,” Harris said. “Later on, it turns into an opportunity to get some of the young guys a chance to play on national TV.”

“It was huge. They had a very good running back (Michael Turner) and a very good running game,” said Magner. “We got them out of their game plan and had to get them throwing the ball, which was not their strong suit.”

Forcing NIU to throw the ball gave Bowling Green the ball back over and over again, BGSU cornerback Janssen Patton picked off then-Huskies quarterback Josh Haldi twice, and even had an interception on a trick play ball thrown by someone Bowling Green fans are very familiar with – former Western Michigan and current Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck, who played wide receiver for Northern Illinois.

The defense stopped NIU’s potent rushing attack led by Michael Turner, who was second in rushing yards coming into that game. He ran for just 87 yards on 18 attempts.

The combination of the high-flying offense and the strong defensive performance led to the outcome Bowling Green fans wanted to see, a 34-18 victory.

Though, even after a big win like that, it was business as usual.

“After the game, we sang ‘Ay Ziggy Zoomba’ like usual. There was a lot of excitement, a lot of joy. But it was just another win,” Harris said. “My senior year, I was focused on putting on the best show, week after week, for my future employer. There wasn’t a lot of extra fluff. The way we were wired, it was probably a lot of ‘Damn, I wish we beat Ohio State.”

20 years later, there’s another Harris in town. Jacob Harris, the son of Josh, will be down on the home sidelines as the city and fans celebrate his father’s work, while wearing the same helmet he did that day.

“That’s dope. It’s definitely exciting to have him there,” Josh Harris said. “The university has been incredible to my family, and now he’s carving his own path. He’s doing well. I’m excited for him.”

Harris and the Falcons welcome Akron into town on Saturday for Family Weekend. The team will be wearing the throwback helmets to pay homage to the 2003 team, and for the first 500 fans, they will be receiving a Lee Corso bobblehead to commemorate GameDay coming to BGSU. 

For more stories related to BGSU Athletics, follow Falcon Media Sports Network on X (@bg_fmsn).

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