Huskies offense shines

By Josh Albrecht

As the Division I-AA Sam Houston State Bearkats looked for their third Division I-A upset in the past three years, the Huskies found themselves in a tight battle against an offensively potent team.

That is until Huskie cornerback Vince Thompson’s 33-yard interception return for a touchdown extended the Huskie lead to 20-10 with 11:15 left in the third quarter.

“One of our goals is to get three turnovers every game,” Thompson said. “We’d like to stop them too, but we will take turnovers over yards.”

From there, the Huskie offense put the game out of reach with three more touchdowns to win the game 41-16, pushing their record to 2-1, which marks the first time that the Huskies have started a season 2-1 since 1992.

“It was a dog fight,” said NIU coach Joe Novak. “Vince’s play turned the momentum around.”

But Sam Houston coach Ron Randleman felt that his team’s loss was simply because of “poor play.”

“You don’t beat anybody turning it over five times,” he said. “You keep turning it over, you get shut down.”

With the game coming two weeks after NIU’s heartbreaking loss to Illinois that was attributed to too many missed opportunities, the Huskies capitalized on a number of big plays to prevail Saturday.

The first half of the game featured a seesaw battle with the Huskies striking first on a Chris Finlen 50-yard touchdown pass to flankerback Darrell Hill that marked the only score of the first quarter.

The Bearkats responded with a 38-yard field goal attempt, but Huskie tackle Jon Peters blocked the try. The Bearkats then mounted a 10-play, 31-yard drive after a Huskie punt, resulting in a 37-yard field goal by Joey Price that brought the score to 7-3.

Two Huskie errors put the Bearkats on the Huskie six-yard line. A 40-yard pass reception by Hill was brought back after an illegal block call and a botched punt attempt. One play and five seconds later, the Bearkats took a 10-7 lead on a Josh McCown pass to tight end Keith Heinrich.

Then with the half winding down, a Huskie drive was stopped short and NIU settled for a 20-yard field goal by Steve Azar tying the game going into halftime. The field goal tied Azar’s shortest of his career.

After opening the second half with another Azar field goal, Thompson followed with an interception return for a touchdown which sparked the Huskies into an offensive frenzy which resulted in a showcase of NIU’s talent with Finlen, HIll, P.J. Fleck and Thomas Hammock leading the way.

Finlen, who completed 15 of his 26 pass attempts for 279 yards, which was the most since he passed for 297 against Ohio in 1997, connected on two long passes with split end P.J. Fleck for 31 and 55-yard touchdowns in the third quarter to match the 50-yard touchdown pass to Hill in the first half.

“All the credit goes to my receivers,” Finlen said.

Fleck finished the game with eight catches for 153 yards and his first two receiving touchdowns as a Huskie. Fleck had 14 catches for 132 yards combined in the first two games of

the season. Hill finished with two catches for 63 yards, giving him 140 yards on the year.

Between Fleck’s touchdowns, the Bearkats attempted to swing the momentum back when McCown (who went 25-38 with 318 passing yards and two interceptions) connected with wide receiver Jonathon Cooper for a 52-yard touchdown pass. The ensuing point after was no good.

Cooper was the thorn in the Huskies’ side as he pulled in 11 catches for 205 yards, tying a Sam Houston record for catches in a game.

NIU finished out the scoring at the beginning of the fourth quarter with a three-yard touchdown run by Hammock, who finished with 152 yards on 35 carries, making the final score 41-16. Hammocks 152 yards made it the eighth consecutive game, going back to last year, that Hammock has rushed for more than 100 yards.

NIU’s defense, lead by Thompson’s interception, an interception by Randee Drew and a fumble recovered by Larry Williams and Peters, created the turnovers that helped to spark the

offense. Lionel Hickenbottom turned in another strong performance with nine tackles with Williams and Akil Grant turning in seven apiece.

With next week’s game against Toledo, Novak said that the season has really just begun.

“We’re going to have to keep improving,” Novak said