Football stuffs Fleck’s gamble

By Frank Gogola

P.J. Fleck, Western Michigan head coach and NIU alumnus, saw his opportunity to throw a knockout punch that would dethrone the four-time defending MAC West champion Huskies.

Instead, Fleck’s fourth-down play call midway through the third quarter turned out to be a swing and miss that came back to sock the Broncos right in the face.

The Huskies (10-2, 7-1 MAC) used the momentum of the stop to help fuel a 21-0 second-half shutout of the Broncos (8-4, 6-2 MAC) en route to a 31-21 MAC West-clinching victory Friday at Waldo Stadium in Kalamazoo, Mich.

“There’s always momentum in a game,” Fleck said. “We’re fighting for momentum. Obviously, our kicking game … we missed another extra point today. So, it was 21-10; if you kick the field goal and we make it it’s 24-10. It’s still two touchdowns. But, if we get [a touchdown] now we’re talking.”

Facing a fourth-and-1 at NIU’s 10-yard line, the Broncos were 10 yards away from potentially going up 28-10. A touchdown could have sealed NIU’s fate after a disastrous first half in which the Broncos converted two NIU turnovers into 10 points and the Huskies had a field goal attempt blocked and were called for a safety.

The Broncos had been running the read-option throughout the game but had been giving the ball to freshman running back Jarvion Franklin. On the fourth down play, Broncos quarterback Zach Terrell kept the ball on a read-option, hoping to catch the Huskies by surprise.

Terrell ran right, but redshirt junior linebacker Rasheen Lemon was in position to wrap up Terrell and junior safety Marlon Moore helped bring down Terrell a half yard short of the first down. Lemon said he was surprised Terrell ran with the ball, but the defense stuffed him because they stayed with their assignments.

“My job was just to keep the edge; it wasn’t a blitz or anything like that,” Lemon said. “My job was to keep the edge; I was a quarterback player. When he pulled that [ball back] I had to make the tackle.”

The Huskies took over on their own 10-yard line after the Broncos had eaten up the opening 7:53 of the second half. Seven plays and 90 yards later, redshirt senior tailback Akeem Daniels rushed into the end zone from 21 yards out to pull the Huskies within 21-17.

NIU took the momentum following the fourth down stop and rode it to a 21-0 second-half shutout.

Given the chance again, Fleck said he would have made the same call.

“I think my team can get a third-and-1, and I definitely think my team can get a fourth-and-1 if they don’t get it on third down,” Fleck said. “I’m going to keep believing in my team.

“I’d do the exact same thing all over again because if we do get it we’re talking different right now, in my opinion, because now you’re sitting there, ‘Wow, that was a great call on fourth down. You got it. You went up 28-10 and that was it.’ Instead you don’t get it. Those are the decisions that I have to make. I would make it all over again because I believe in those players in that locker room.”