Close loss not good enough

By Todd McMahon

The final score read: Illinois 30, NIU 14.

To the average football guru, this tally would mean the Huskies did a respectable job in front of the throng of orange and blue at Memorial Stadium.

For Charlie Sadler and his Huskies, they fell 17 points short of what they set out to accomplish Saturday night.

“We don’t have one thing to be happy about because we lost,” Sadler said. “We came here to win. Every game that we play, we’re going to play for that reason. Our team is a team that has that confidence. … We had chances tonight to win.”

NIU had numerous opportunities to pull out the upset victory over the Fighting Illini in the teams’ first head-to-head meeting.

On the Huskies’ first possession of the second half, Rob Rugai returned at quarterback and led NIU down to the Illinois 10. On the series’ 11th play, Rugai’s pass on third-and-eight in the end zone was picked off by Robert Crumpton.

Thanks to Scott Hein’s interception of Jason Verduzco late in the third quarter, the Huskies started from the Illini 27 and punched in seven points four plays later to pull within 17-14.

NIU had its best chance to regain the lead and possibly victory early in the fourth quarter. The Huskies’ Rich Favor regained the ball for NIU after Illinois’ John Wright fumbled on a punt return.

But on the first play from NIU’s 37, LeShon Johnson was stripped of the ball and the Illini went on to score two touchdowns to seal the victory.

“(Saturday’s) game was the best opening game we could have because it will point out our strengths and certainly alert us to our weaknesses,” Sadler said.

“The kids’ attitudes are positive. They’re not satisfied with playing good against Illinois. … They came to win, and I’m glad to see them thinking that way.”

One thing that caught Sadler’s eye Saturday was how his team has improved from last year.

“It’s unbelievable how they view themselves now, compared to a year ago,” the second-year coach said. “When we walked into (Iowa’s) Kinnick Stadium and walked down into (Florida’s) Gator Field (last year), I think they were in awe of being there.

“They walked into the stadium here and walked out in front of those fans (and) it didn’t bother them. … What has impressed me as much as anything is how this team has matured in a short time.”