It was past 2 a.m. on the East Coast when San Diego State entered victory formation. The Aztecs had intercepted NIU quarterback Daniel Santacaterina on the Huskies' attempt at a game-winning possession, icing the game with a score of 34-28.
No. 19 San Diego State earned its third narrow victory in a row, sliding past Stanford and Air Force before fending off a feisty Northern Illinois team in the game's final minutes. At halftime, it appeared that Rocky Long and his squad had this game in the bag. With home field advantage at SDCCU Stadium and a 31-14 lead over the Mid American Conference foes, San Diego State would earn its 5-0 record but not without a fight.
The game began with some back-and-forth offensive banter between the black and red programs. San Diego State struck first by returning the opening kickoff 96 yards for an immediate 7-0 advantage. Northern Illinois would not be outlasted in the game's opening minutes. Santacaterina connected with his favorite target Christian Blake for a 34-yard pass to tie it up at seven apiece.
Saturday night was Blake's arrival to stardom. The senior wideout achieved career highs with 13 receptions and 160 receiving yards. He was money on the seam route all night, burning Aztec corners and more-than-doubling his statistical outputs from NIU's previous three contests combined. Blake scored twice in the defeat, but he served as the Huskies' primary star in the shortcoming.
Dark-horse Heisman candidate and FBS's second-leading rusher Rashaad Penny would respond with a touchdown of his own. Outside of his 33-yard score, Penny struggled for the majority of the first half. After a few large runs in the second half, the star halfback would finish with a respectable 107 yards — his fifth straight 100-yard game of the season.
Blake countered with his second touchdown reception to even it out at 14-14 in the later portion of the first quarter. But the second period belonged completely to the Aztecs.
San Diego State fired up a 17-0 scoring run before halftime, anchored by an 83-yard pick six by Tariq Thompson — a crucial 14-point swing that left a major impact on the result. With a John Baron field goal right before the half, the Aztecs sat comfortably on a 17-point lead through 30 minutes of action.
Northern Illinois' offense kicked it into new gear in the third quarter, as did the team's powerful defensive unit. Less than 20 seconds into the corner, Santacaterina fired a bomb to wide receiver Spencer Tears down the right sideline. The touchdown wound up going for 81 yards, creeping NIU back within 10 points.
Of the eight San Diego State drives (excluding victory formation) in the second half, Northern Illinois forced punts on seven — all of which were three-and-outs. The team's front seven stepped up on third downs and halting ball carriers by the line of scrimmage. Secondary players, such as star cornerback Shawun Lurry, also joined in the defensive moment by batting down passes and tightly covering receivers to prevent Aztec first downs.
Several drives later, Santacaterina would hook up with Blake for a 50-yard pass to enter the red zone. The Huskies would score and cut the deficit to 31-28 several plays later on a sneak by backup quarterback Marcus Childers.
San Diego State experienced one decent possession in the second half, one where Penny ran for 38 yards and lifted the Aztecs into field goal range. The Huskies held their own by the goal line, forcing San Diego State to a 21-yard field goal. Baron split the uprights and extended the Aztecs' lead to 34-28.
Northern Illinois would make significant progress on its next possession, providing the Huskies favorable field position for the remainder of the night. Boosted by an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty by the Aztecs after Santacaterina was sacked on third down, the Huskies would drive to midfield before punting the ball.
After forcing a three-and-out, Lurry returned a punt into Aztec territory. Although Santacaterina and company began the drive at San Diego State's 44, NIU was unable to progress down the field and punted once again.
But the Huskies earned another chance after stopping Penny on third down. On this opportunity, Northern Illinois began at the Aztecs' 45. Carey would turn to running back Jordan Huff to create the offense. Huff excelled on the drive with 20 yards on three straight carries. Upon reaching the end zone, NIU decided to risk it all by electing to pass to the end zone rather than keep it on the ground.
Santacaterina's fade route in the left corner of the end zone was underthrown. San Diego State's Kameron Kelly intercepted the ball at the goal line and meandered around the field, gaining significant yardage before being tackled to the ground. That possession would be the Huskies' closest chance at dethroning the ranked Aztecs.
Although NIU stopped San Diego State once again, Santacaterina would throw his third interception of the night on the desperation possession.
The Huskies finish 2-2 in non-conference play with the loss, earning a key win over Nebraska and suffering heartbreaking, last-minute shortcomings to Boston College and San Diego State. But there is no argument that the Huskies' offense looked more alive on the final day of September than it did all season long.
Santacaterina threw for three touchdown passes, leading an offense to 429 yards of total offense. Comparatively, San Diego State only achieved 263 and scored two non-offensive touchdowns in the victory. Turnovers proved costly for NIU, getting dominated 4-0 in the turnover battle. Impressively, the Huskies still managed to finish within one score of a ranked program with the abundance of costly errors on offense.
Northern Illinois looks to surpass the .500 mark next Saturday at Huskie Stadium against the 1-4 Kent State Golden Flashes.