NIU holds on after comeback

By Dan Moran

Wishbone met wishbone Saturday at Huskie Stadium, and in the end, it was a matter of which defense was better at stopping the offense it practices against.

NIU escaped with a 27-21 victory over the Southwest Missouri State Bears, who showed up two hours late for their funeral, in front of 9,017 faithful.

It took a Huskie defensive stand with less than two minutes to play to secure the win, as the Bears drove down to the NIU 14 after converting a fake-punt play at midfield. Head coach Jerry Pettibone said when the Bears lined up on fourth and four with 1:44 to go, he feared the worst.

“I said to myself, ‘Lord, please don’t make it one of those finishes,'” he said. “And, sure enough, He didn’t listen to my prayer until we got all the way down there at the end.”

If faith moves mountains, it certainly should be able to stop a 195-pound fullback. The Bears ran an option sweep at NIU on that fourth-down play, with quarterback DeAndre Smith pitching to fullback Elijah Dukes, who looked like he had the surge before Reggie Harris and a host of Huskie tacklers made the stop.

SMSU coach Jesse Branch said the play was a read-option, with Smith having to decide on a keeper or a pitch, depending on the defensive reaction. NIU linebacker Mike Manson said, “Everyone had a read, and everyone made their read. There were no slip-ups this time.”

But there had been slip-ups to allow the Bears to get back in the game after being down 17-7 at the half. Pettibone said when his squad got the lead “we kind of threw it in neutral and let them get back in it.”

The Huskies drew first blood by scoring late in the first quarter after false starts by both teams. Keith Hurley capped a nine-play, 62-yard drive by following Virgil Gerin on a 10-yard sweep to the end zone. The score had been set up when NIU linebacker Mike Higgins recovered one of the Bears’ four fumbles.

In fact, Bears’ turnovers set up the rest of the Huskies’ first-half scoring. A Manson interception led to a Pete Genatempo touchdown plunge early in the second quarter. Another interception by safety Kevin Cassidy set up a John Ivanic field goal.

Sandwiched between those two NIU scores, however, was an 85-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by the Bears’ Tony Gilbert. Gilbert burst through the NIU wall and won a footrace with Randall Townsel to the end zone.

“First I made a bad judgment,” said Townsell, who was NIU’s last line of defense. “I should’ve just come up and made the tackle. Then I took a bad angle and he got past me.”

The third quarter was all Southwest Missouri State. The Bears staged a 14-play, 61-yard drive, overcoming two penalties along the way, to make it 17-14 with 4:56 to play in the quarter. They then took the lead 21-17 on a 1-yard sneak by Smith near the end of the period.

The Huskies were unable to counter the Bears’ third-quarter surge, as the SMSU defense rose to blunt the NIU attack. Bear linebacker Matt Soraghan, who finished with 18 tackles, said his unit benefited from its work against the Bear wishbone in practices.

“It’s basically the same as ours,” Soraghan said of the NIU wishbone. “We go against them every spring. They’ve got the triple-option, and Kenny (Braden, 16 tackles) stuffed them pretty good.”

“They followed me everywhere I went,” quarterback Marshall Taylor said of the Bear defense. “I went into the locker room and they were there, too.”

But with a 15-25 mile-per-hour wind at their backs, the Huskies managed to regain the lead with a little cushion. Genatempo scored on an 8-yard run with 11:15 to play to end an eight-play, 49-yard drive, highlighted by an 18-yard completion from Genatempo to Kent Iwema to the SMSU 23.

Ivanic followed with a field goal three minutes later after a Higgins deflection landed in Rufus Taylor’s hands for the Huskies’ fifth interception of the day. The Bears then started their ill-fated two-minute drill.

“They did what they had to do when they had to do it,” Pettibone said of his team. “We’ve reached the point where we can come back and do what we have to do.”