MUNCIE, Ind. – Jerry Kill had the play in his back pocket since August training camp. But it wasn’t until the 11th game of the season in mid-November that the Northern Illinois coach finally pulled out the trickery.
Freshman kicker Matt Sims ran onto the field late in the second quarter, replacing Michael Cklamovski after the senior missed his sixth field goal in 12 tries on a 42-yard attempt in the first quarter.
But Sims never swung his leg. After taking the snap, holder Chandler Harnish pitched the ball to Sims toward the right side of the field.
On 4th-and-6 from the Ball State 24-yard line, the fleet-footed, red-shoed kicker – Sims is the only player on NIU without the mandated black team shoe because of a preseason ordering snafu – beat a Ball State defender to the edge for a six-yard gain and the first down.
“(Kill) told me we were going to run it before the game,” Sims said, “but when I actually went out there I got really excited.”
Chad Spann scored on a seven-yard touchdown run four plays later as the Huskies (9-2, 7-0 Mid-American Conference) took a 35-7 lead en route to a 59-21 dismantling of the Cardinals (4-8, 3-5 MAC). The fake field goal had tricked NIU's scout defense several times back in August, but Kill said the opportunity was just right on Saturday.
“It was kind of a good timing because when Mike missed one people were probably like, ‘Probably coach is mad as hell, so he’s going to put the other guy in.’ That was the time to do it because I certainly didn’t want Mike (who finished 1-for-3 on field goals) to do it because he’s so tall and lanky,” said Kill, who added that future teams now have to be prepared for the play.
“If it wouldn’t have worked, it would’ve been a dumb call, but it worked out.”
Ticket masters: NIU players have grown accustomed to Harnish’s weekly solicitation for extra tickets to appease the strong contingent of family, friends and high school buddies that attend almost every NIU home and road game.
“A lot of guys just give me their passwords and e-mail addresses and I put the tickets in for myself,” Harnish said. “It’s become kind of a same-old procedure every week.”
But the NIU quarterback had to do some extra bartering this week with an even larger following making the one-hour trip south from his hometown of Bluffton, Ind., to Muncie. Harnish, who threw for two touchdowns in the win, said he accumulated 60 tickets, 56 from teammates, for Saturday’s game.
Spann, an Indianapolis native, scavenged 24 tickets from teammates to supplement his weekly allotment of four free tickets. But his mother also ordered a couple dozen more tickets so that the group of about 55 Spann supporters could watch the NIU senior running back climb the Huskies record books.
With three touchdowns on Saturday, Spann passed Michael Turner for second on the NIU all-time rushing touchdown list. His 45 rushing scores rank second behind Garrett Wolfe’s 52. Wolfe had 57 total touchdowns during his career.
“I didn’t know that,” said Spann, who also is two touchdowns short of breaking his own single-season rushing touchdown record with three games remaining in his NIU career. “I guess I’m going to have to hit up Garrett and let him know I’m coming for that record.”
Pick party: NIU recruited Tyrone Clark because his athleticism and size make him a force against the run. But in two years under linebackers coach Tom Matukewicz, the sophomore has become one of the Huskies’ best against the pass.
Clark intercepted Ball State backup quarterback Kelly Page, who replaced injured starter Keith Wenning early in the second quarter, and returned it 26 yards for a fourth quarter touchdown. It was Clark's team-leading fourth pick of the season – and his career.
“This is the most I’ve ever had,” Clark said. “In high school, I picked off about three of them but I was more of a run-stopper. I wasn’t really dropping [in coverage] too much in high school.”
Clark’s interception was the NIU defense’s second touchdown of the season – Devon Butler scored on a 26-yard interception return in a 50-14 win over Akron –and the Huskies 22nd takeaway of the season.
“As a defense, we always want to get turnovers. Into every game, we always want to get at least three turnovers or the maximum that we can,” Clark said. “Whenever we get the chance to put points up, it’s always good for us and for the team.”