DeKALB – When he heard the play call, Northern Illinois defensive end Alan Baxter immediately recognized it was “brilliant.”
NIU’s defense was reeling. Army’s final drive of the first half Saturday began on its 30-yard line. Now the Black Knights were on NIU’s 1, a minute before halftime.
But Baxter didn’t worry.
“We had effectively tackled the dive all night,” Baxter said. “It was pretty obvious. We knew that they knew that the dive was being tackled. So we called a play to counter that, to fake tackling the dive and play the quarterback keep.
“It was just a brilliant play call. We knew we were going to get them because we knew exactly what they wanted to do in that situation.”
It happened as he thought. When Army quarterback Trent Steelman practically fell into Baxter’s shoulder pads, the NIU junior stripped the football and recovered the fumble.
With the Huskies leading by 29 points, the game’s outcome already had little doubt. After Baxter’s fumble, NIU was effectively 1-0.
“I knew I had him,” Baxter said. “It was a big-play opportunity. We were on the goal line, and we had to stop them from getting in. So it was huge. I knew that was going to be my call on that play.”
Baxter was modest Tuesday when speaking about the Huskies’ biggest defensive play in their 49-26 opening win against Army. He credited it to, a “brilliant” coaching call, little to do with him.
Defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen disagreed with that last part.
“He did a really good job of just executing the plan in good detail,” Nielsen said. “His responsibility on that play was the quarterback, and he did exactly what he did in practice. He practiced it exactly the same way that he played. So it wasn’t surprising that he made the play. It was just a big play at an opportune time.
“I think it really changed the momentum through halftime and the next quarter.”
Baxter’s big play highlighted an overall stellar night, leading the defensive line with 5.5 tackles and 2.5 for loss. It was the type of performance that didn’t seem possible this spring, when he missed considerable time with leg and wrist injuries.
But Baxter said he continued paying attention in practice, taking “mental reps” even when his body couldn’t physically go through the motions. He spent much of the summer in the weight room. When fall camp opened in early August, Nielsen said he could tell the work paid off.
“You could see when he got out of the summer program, his body had changed,” Nielsen said. “He did a great job this summer. That was what really prepared him for the season.”
Even still, coach Dave Doeren said there were no signs foreshadowing Baxter’s performance Saturday. Not that Baxter played poorly, Doeren said, but he was concerned how all NIU’s defensive linemen would play Army’s cut blocks.
Turned out, Baxter couldn’t have played it any better.
“He executed a play on the exact moment that we need him to do it – to perfection,” Doeren said. “That’s so rewarding as a coach, when you make the right call against the right play and the player executes it perfectly. That was as good as it gets at that moment on that forced fumble.”
Baxter downplayed his performance Saturday, partly because he kept it in perspective. The season’s first game is just the first game. There are still 11 more to go – at least – starting 6 p.m. Saturday at Kansas.
And Baxter isn’t about to allow his play to drop off the rest of the fall.
“It felt good, but it doesn’t mean anything unless it’s followed up,” Baxter said. “It needs to continue.”