August 28, 2003 was the start of something big for Northern Illinois football.
Throughout the mid- to late-1990s, the Huskies were the doormats of college football, logging a 23-game losing streak between 1996-’98.
After an 8-4 campaign in 2002, which included a win over then-ranked Bowling Green, the Huskies were poised for big things.
NIU opened the season against Maryland, a team which had won the Atlantic Coast Conference title two years earlier. The Terrapins were No. 15 in the preseason Associated Press poll.
Playing in front of a sold-out Huskie Stadium crowd, NIU earned a 20-13 overtime win, setting the stage for a breakout season.
It’s been a full 10 years since that game, and the Huskies have experienced unprecedented success in the seasons that followed.
The Daily Chronicle spoke to different figures who were involved in the game in a number of different capacities and they talked about their experiences before, during and after one of the biggest victories in NIU history.
BEFORE THE GAME
Joe Novak arrived at NIU in 1996, after 12 years as an assistant at Indiana. His tenure got off to a rocky start as the Huskies won only three games from 1996-98, going winless in 1997.
The Huskies had winning seasons in 2000 and 2001, and, in 2002, NIU went 8-4.
DAN SHELDON (wide receiver): We knew we had a good team, but we were still fairly unproven. We had a nice season the year before to kind of get us going. We had a lot of returning starters that year. And I don’t think anybody really anticipated us coming out and upsetting Maryland.
RANDEE DREW (cornerback): The year before when we went 8-4, we played a lot of people tough, we made a lot of noise. We took Wisconsin to the wire that year, and they kind of robbed us of a win up there. And we just kind of piggybacked off of the success we had in the conference that year.
In the spring before the game, Maryland talked with NIU about possibly getting out of the contract.
CARY GROTH (athletic director): Most teams, when they sign a two-for-one like that, you play at their place, they like to buy out. Once you play there a game, they like to get out of that game. They know that the so-called mid-majors are doing this for money in most cases. I will never forget, when the Athletic Director [Debbie Yow], one of her staff members, and her husband walking on the field before the game. Her staff member says, this is your payday game, or you did this contract for a payday, and I said, ‘we never sign contracts with a team we don’t think we can beat.’
NOVAK: [Yow] and Ralph (Friedgen) tried real hard to get out of that game. They did not want to come to DeKalb, they wanted us to come back to Maryland, and I give Cary Groth a lot of credit. She fought it off and forced them to live up to their contract, which nowadays doesn’t always happen, to be honest with you.
The day of the game, USA Today ran a story on NIU running back Michael Turner, who was the nation’s leading returning rusher.
MIKE KORCEK (sports information director): Ralph Friedgen, they’re down I-88, I think they’re in Lisle there. USA Today sold out in the Northern Illinois area and [Maryland] bought one for every player. And so, on the bus ride to the stadium, every player read the story about Michael Turner.
NOVAK: That kind of put Michael in the headlights, because this was the front sports page of USA Today, Turner the Burner. So that put an extra incentive for them. The thing I remember the most is going out for the pregame. Two things, going out and seeing [Maryland], they were in their Under Armour or whatever they call that stuff, jerseys just walking around ... I coached in the Big Ten for many years, it was one of the most impressive-looking football teams I’ve ever seen.
MATT CANADA (Offensive Coordinator): They had, obviously, very talented players. I don’t remember all the names but certainly had some great linebackers and great defensive linemen that were a challenge.
MARK LINDO (Radio Analyst): Parking cars were backed up. It looked like Field of Dreams from the press box, the lights coming in. It was a 6:30 game, but people were late getting there. The lights were on, it was fall already. It was a special night.
SHELDON: Two wide receivers under 6-foot tall starting in that game (Sheldon and P.J. Fleck) and I think they kind of scoffed at us, like they weren’t taking us seriously. I believe P.J. had a whole bunch of catches in that game, and we both had game-changing touchdowns.
Before the game, NIU honored Shea Fitzgerald, who was to be a starter on the offensive line before he was killed in a tragic porch collapse in Chicago along with 12 others. The team honored Fitzgerald with a moment of silence before the game, and each player had his No. 76 on their left shoulder.
NOVAK: It was very fresh in our memories. We had taken Shea’s locker in the stadium there and we enclosed it, and we had kept everything just as it was before he had passed away.
DREW: It was so emotional. He passed so close before the season was going to start. Just to see his family out there, Shea was younger than me, but his brothers, his family came there. You kind of feel like you know people’s families, they’re part of the family. Being one of the captains, I came out there before the game just to shake his mom and his brother’s hand.
Maryland scored its only touchdown of the game on its first drive. The Huskies got on the board with a 52-yard field goal by Steve Azar at the start of the second quarter, and took the lead with a 5-yard TD pass from Josh Haldi to Fleck. Maryland responded in the second half with two Nick Novak field goals, and the Huskies tied the game on a Steve Azar 25-yard field goal with 1:12 remaining.
NOVAK: They took the ball and drove right down in like seven or eight plays and scored. And I thought, oh brother. Give our kids credit, they came back and we hung in there.
NICK DUFFY (linebacker): I think what Maryland tried to do was they tried to run the ball at us, and it just didn’t work. We were that good of a defense, I felt like at the time. And we were able to shut down their run. Our secondary at the time was Randee Drew, Rob Lee, they couldn’t get much of a passing game going either. So we were fortunate in the fact we had a great defense and we had all been playing together for three years at that point.
DREW: I think our front seven did an amazing job stopping the run. When you play a good team like that, you can’t let them be multi-dimensional. We stopped the run right away. We were hitting them in the mouth, we were contesting their passes. I know they tried to go deep on me a few times.
SHELDON: I ended up leaving the game midway through, or maybe in the third quarter, with what I thought was a season-ending knee injury, only to have the doctors check me out and find out it was only a sprain. I pretty much wrapped it up and went back out. Fortunately, the adrenaline pumping through me helped to disguise some of the pain and discomfort.
NIU had the chance to win in regulation as Azar attempted a 43-yard field goal in the final seconds. The kick was blocked.
NOVAK: It was unbelievable how high [Maryland’s Curtis Williams] got because everything we did from our side was executed well. But they had a kid leap up and just make a tremendous play to block it. And you could see some of the air come out of the stadium, because that was our chance to win.
In overtime, the Huskies got the ball first, and scored when Sheldon caught a 20-yard touchdown pass from Haldi.
SHELDON: I don’t know what the down was, but I think it was probably third down, we had about 10, 11, 12 yards to go. They called a great play, I was able to slip by the guy’s hand, get in there.
On 2nd-and-7 from the NIU 22-yard line, Terrapins QB Scott McBrien threw a pass to the end zone. It bounced off Huskie corner Rob Lee and into the hands of Drew, who intercepted it at the 6-yard line. The celebration began.
DREW: I just started running toward the ball, and once Rob kicked it in the air, it came right to me. I didn’t even think he’d pop it up in the air. I was just running to the ball to, whatever I could do, tackle, try to force a fumble, anything I could do to help break it up.
NOVAK: I couldn’t see. I honestly didn’t know what happened. Everybody was going crazy. The sideline was, the people in the stands, but I wasn’t sure what actually happened. Everybody else was celebrating, so I figured I might was well, too.
DUFFY: That play, there was good pressure on the quarterback, that ball was so underthrown that by the time everybody had turned around, the receiver and Rob, who was defending him, by the time they had turned around, Rob ended up just sticking his leg out and it bounced off his leg.
NOVAK: After all the struggles that we had with the losing streak, and all that, to reach that point, that game and the success. Later on that evening we were the lead story on SportsCenter, which is a status symbol of course. I mean, it was going from the pits to the penthouse. That’s what it felt like.
LINDO: Everything Joe had envisioned basically came to a culmination that night, it was like the perfect storm. You had to have the right opponent on the right night with the right team representing Northern Illinois.