Special teams play holds Huskies back

By Dave Tuley

assistant sports editor

The NIU football team’s special teams were not so special in the Huskies’ 21-20 loss to Cal State-Fullerton Saturday at Huskie Stadium.

An NIU holding penalty on a CSUF punt, a blocked Huskie punt and a missed 22-yard field goal by John Ivanic contributed to the Huskies’ record dropping to 3-3-1.

“Those kinds of things you just can’t do,” NIU head coach Jerry Pettibone said. “You eliminate one of these three, and we win the game. It comes down to who makes the fewest mistakes, and that’s what happened today.”

The Huskies defense did something on the opening drive out of the ordinary; it stopped a team before it was able to score a touchdown. However, the Huskies were flagged for defensive holding on the punt, and CSUF drove downfield for the opening touchdown.

“It turned out good until we held on fourth down,” Pettibone said.

The second major breakdown for NIU was a blocked Darren Monnet punt by Kevin Henderson with 3:32 left in the first half. Five plays later, Titan quarterback Ronnie Barber hit his favorite receiver, Todd White, for an 18-yard touchdown pass.

“I’d have to see the film, but it was a combination of a high snap and they came through on the right side,” Monnet said. “The upback took a guy on the inside, and a guy from the outside blocked it.”

enderson, a roverback who also had eight tackles, said, “I was able to get through, and I wasn’t able to get all of it but enough to knock it out of bounds.”

A relatively minor mistake happened on the ensuing kickoff when Chris Gholston fumbled the ball out of bounds on the NIU 2. The Huskies ran out the clock and went into the locker room trailing 14-3 with both CSUF touchdowns being set up by mistakes in the Huskies’ kicking game.

The NIU special teams took a blow when long-snapper Joe Spillane went down on a field goal attempt with what appeared at the time to be a serious injury. Spillane had his neck immobilized and was put on a stretcher and taken to Kishwaukee Community Hospital in an ambulance.

To add insult to injury, Ivanic missed the field goal and the chance to swing the momentum to NIU early in the third quarter after the Huskies had driven 67 yards in 16 plays.

Ivanic was a perfect 11 for 11 inside 40 yards this year before he missed to the right Saturday. He also has made 18 straight extra points which ties him for second on the all-time Huskie list.

But the Titans were unable to capitalize on their next possession, allowing NIU to stay in the game when Rufus Taylor forced a fumble that was recovered by Randall Townsel.

“The turnaround could possibly have been with the missed field goal, and we moved to the 12 and fumbled,” CSUF head coach Gene Murphy said.

Murphy said the Huskies’ miscues put his team in position to score. The swing in field position was obvious as the Titans averaged starting at their own 37 while the Huskies’ average start was at their own 25.

“It had to help us in field position, but that’s something we work on a lot,” Murphy said. “When you don’t have quality depth, you have to get really good on special teams.”

Part of the reason for the Titans’ consistent good field position was Ivanic’s inability to kick the ball deep.

“I wish I had a strong enough leg to get it to the end zone,” Ivanic said. “I just try to squib it down there and not let them get a good return.”

CSUF averaged only 10.3 yards per kickoff return but that was usually after fielding the ball around the 20-yard line.

One special teams unit that has fared well in past weeks is the punt return team, but Rodney Taylor did not have a return Saturday as Titan punter Jim Sirois kicked the ball out of bounds on one occassion, had another downed by a teammate and still another caught by a teammate on the fly at the Huskies’ 7-yard line.

Taylor entered the game ranked No. 8 in the nation with a 14.3 yard average per punt return.