Stephens' touchdown pass came on the first play of a third-quarter drive and put Tennessee (2-3) up 13-3. It was the Vols' longest play of the season.
"I told Nick, 'If you can see me, just throw it out there, and I'll go get it,'" Moore said.
Coach Phillip Fulmer named Stephens the starter on Friday in hopes of sparking a mistake-prone offense which had been anemic behind Jonathan Crompton.
"We're still very much a work in progress," Fulmer said. "I thought we made some strides in running the offense at times."
Tennessee still struggled, converting three of 13 third downs and picking up only nine first downs.
With the Vols off to a poor start, Neyland Stadium was again less than full. The crowd was announced at 99,539, about 2,500 short of a sellout. It's unlikely an ugly win against a middle of the pack team from the Mid-Amercian Conference will do anything to appease Vols fans who have been displeased with Fulmer.
"I want to say a really special thank you to all the fans who came out. I was taken aback by the encouragement and the energy of that group and really appreciated the same thing all night long," he said.
Stephens completed 10 of 17 for 156 yards -- not much different from Crompton's average stats -- and the redshirt sophomore fumbled the ball at the Vols 23 after taking a hard hit.
Mike Krause recovered for the Huskies at the 9, giving Northern Illinois its best shot at the end zone of the night.
Back-to-back penalties for delay of game and sideline interference backed the Huskies up 10 yards, and Mike Salerno kicked a 25-yard field goal to pull Northern Illinois within 4 with 1:31 in the third quarter.
Tennessee had its own clear shot at the end zone after receiving the ball on the Northern Illinois 49 in the fourth quarter. Six straight runs by Arian Foster put the Vols on the 9.
Stephens took a sack that cost him 10 yards, and a 32-yard field goal attempt by Daniel Lincoln sailed wide left.
Foster rushed for 75 yards for Tennessee, and Moore's TD catch helped him lead the team in receiving with 65 yards on three catches.
Northern Illinois struck first after John Tranchitella recovered a fumble by Josh Briscoe at midfield.
A roughing the passer penalty on Demonte Bolden put the Huskies on the Vols 10, and Salerno kicked a 25-yard field goal four plays later to put Northern Illinois up 3-0 with 2:53 in the first.
Eric Berry picked off Dan Nicholson on third-and-14 and returned it 48 yards to the Northern Illinois 16. The Vols lost 3 yards on the drive, and Lincoln kicked a 36-yard field goal that hit the left upright on its way through to tie the game at 3 points.
Nicholson, who missed the first two games of the season to recover from offseason shoulder surgery, left the game with a shoulder injury after completing 10 of 15 for 79 yards. DeMarcus Grady took over and went 4-for-10 for 39 yards and was the top rusher with 47 yards.
"Coach is always telling about being ready," said Grady who played in Nicholson's earlier absences.
Lincoln also kicked a 34-yard field goal for Tennessee, and Salerno had a 24-yarder.
The Vols kept themselves from gaining ground in the first half, committing six penalties for a loss of 45 yards. Several of Stephens' passes were dropped by receivers.
It was the Huskies who struggled with penalties in the second half, committing seven for 40 yards.
"Our kids played as hard as you could ask anybody to play," Northern Illinois coach Jerry Kill said. "They are bigger, faster and stronger, no question. They are a tremendous, tremendous defensive team."
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