Rugai, seniors edge Redbirds

By Wes Swietek

On a day set aside to honor seniors, the NIU football team turned to a junior to lead it to a welcome victory.

Junior quarterback Rob Rugai, starting his first game this season, passed for a touchdown and rushed for a TD in the Huskies’ 27-24 win over Illinois State Saturday at Huskie Stadium.

But Rugai got a lot of help from some NIU seniors in the victory that ended a Huskies’ (2-8) seven-game losing streak in front of 6,943 fans.

Fullback Adam Dach made the home finale of his stellar career a memorable one with 135 rushing yards and a TD. The defense was led by senior Scott Van Bellinger, who recorded 16 tackles and an NIU record-tying five stops for loss.

“It was a win which we really needed,” said head coach Charlie Sadler. “We have so many young players and I want them to end the season having the taste of victory in their mouth.”

The Redbirds (4-6), however, came close to providing the Huskies with bitter memories.

NIU opened the scoring in the first quarter with a 55-yard TD run by Dach, who burst up the middle and outran ISU’s secondary into the endzone. The Division I-AA Redbirds quickly tied the score on a four-yard run by Richie Thompson.

A Willy Roy Jr. field goal gave NIU a 10-7 lead, but ISU took the halftime advantage, 14-10, on a two-yard TD pass to Brian Brown from QB Adrian Wilson.

After the teams traded field goals in the third quarter, NIU took advantage of some breaks to pull out the win.

After driving to ISU’s five, Rugai hit flanker William Patrick, who made a one-handed grab in the endzone. “He was running a quick slant, I saw him stick one arm out and I heard the crowd cheer and I knew he caught it,” Rugai said.

The Huskies quickly added to their lead when ISU’s Eric Simple fumbled the ensuing kickoff. Rugai ran it in from five yards out six plays later for a 27-17 lead.

It turned out the Huskies needed the insurance touchdown as the Redbirds tallied with 1:28 left to come within 27-24. NIU’s Raymond Roberts fielded ISU’s onside kick and the Huskies ran out the clock.

Aside from the key fumble, ISU also threw two interceptions, while the Huskies only turned the ball over once. “Turnovers have been our nemesis throughout the year,” Sadler said. “Today, we evened out some.”

Aside from the win, NIU may have solidified the QB slot. After seeing limited time this season as Stacey McKinney’s backup, Rugai was 10-of-19 passing in his first start, while McKinney was ineffective with seven rushes for nine net yards.

“I want to start … but it’s up to the coaches,” Rugai said.

Sadler, however, said NIU will continue rotating QBs.

“Today, Rob went out and did a heck of a job. We have confidence in him as well as Stacey—we’ll play two quarterbacks,” Sadler said.

Linebacker Steve Henriksen notched 20 tackles to lead the defense along with the record-tying performance by Van Bellinger.

“The coaches got (the record) for me,” Van Bellinger said. “Every time we had a stunt or a blitz, I’d come free. It was the perfect stunt for the offensive play they were running.”

The NIU seniors will suit up in the Cardinal and Black one more time, at Toledo. After ending their home careers, Dach summed up the feelings of the seniors.

“It’s hard to believe that we’ll never play a game here again.”