Injury brings out NIU’s best

By Nathan Lindquist

On ESPN Saturday night, college football analyst Mark May gave a game helmet to senior wide receiver Sam Hurd for his 12-catch, 266-yard performance against Central Michigan. He also should have handed out two more helmets; one each to Dan Nicholson and Craig Rusch as the trio stepped up to salvage the Huskies’ season.

But while junior quarterback Phil Horvath sat on the turf with a broken left arm at the end of the first quarter, it looked like the injury bug finally ended NIU’s season for good. With junior running back and scoring machine Garrett Wolfe probably also done for the season, it looked like NIU’s offense would be dead in the water.

The next thing Nicholson knew, he was putting on his helmet and running out onto the field to run the NIU offense. A third-stringer at the beginning of the season, the redshirt freshman had the Huskies’ postseason hopes riding on his inexperienced shoulders.

History has proven injuries bring out the best in the Huskies. In 2002, a heart condition ended Thomas Hammock’s career. Enter Michael Turner, the NIU career record holder for rushing yards now playing for the San Diego Chargers. In 2004, the unheralded Wolfe replaced an injured A.J. Harris and led the nation in scoring. In the post game press conference, Horvath cited how he replaced Josh Haldi last year and helped keep the Huskies on track for their first bowl victory since 1983.

Add Nicholson’s name to the list. The entire time he was on the field, everyone in the press box was wondering, “This guy is a redshirt freshman?”

You’d never know it by his performance. Looking at Nicholson’s box score line doesn’t do the man justice. Three touchdowns and 320 yards passing look gaudy, but it wasn’t half as impressive as how he looked on the field.

Nicholson stood poised in the pocket like the Statue of Liberty, holding the ball until the last possible second before unloading perfect strikes to his receivers. He took a hard hit after almost every pass from CMU’s brutalizing front four, but he never looked concerned or nervous. He looked like he had been doing it for years.

Of course, with the day Sam Hurd had, how could Nicholson not look good? Known for his cocky attitude on and off the field, the senior wideout backed up his talk with his most impressive game in the most important game of the season.

At 6-foot-4, Hurd outsized easily CMU’s puny secondary by five inches on average. Not only did he look like Randy Moss on the field, he played like him too, making leaping acrobatic catches to everything thrown his way. The Nicholson-Hurd connection was flawless and it looked like the two had played catch for years.

But it would all have been for naught if not for Craig Rusch. Another redshirt freshman, Rusch, manhandled the CMU offensive line and put constant pressure on the slippery Kent Smith. Rusch lived up to his name with two sacks, a forced fumble, constantly stuffed the running backs at the line of scrimmage. If not for his domination of the right side, the shaky NIU defense would have folded in the end.

The Huskies finally could breathe easy when CMU missed a 39-yard field goal with one minute left. Despite the great victory, it won’t mean a thing if the Nicholson-Hurd-Rusch trio can’t conjure up more magic against Toledo. But Saturday, we witnessed the game of the year, and with Nicholson, the bright future of NIU football.