SAN DIEGO — Back-to-back interceptions by Tariq Thompson and Kameron Kelly denied Northern Illinois’ upset bid as No. 19 San Diego State survived a sluggish offensive performance to win 34-28 on Saturday night.
San Diego State (5-0) went without a touchdown in the second half, but the defense provided critical stops, including Kelly’s interception in the end zone and Thompson’s interception on the Huskies’ last-gasp effort.
The win preserved San Diego State’s best start since 1975, when the Aztecs won eight straight.
In a game with 14 penalty flags — 10 on the Aztecs — two against San Diego State in the fourth quarter complicated the Aztecs’ field positioning and offensive approach.
An unsportsmanlike penalty after a third-down sack prevented Northern Illinois (2-2) from having to punt out of its own end zone. While the Huskies did not score off the flag, the Aztecs’ next two possessions started with their backs at their own goal line.
Explosive pass plays brought Northern Illinois back from a 17-point halftime deficit. On the second play from scrimmage in the third quarter, Daniel Santacaterina connected with Spencer Tears on an 81-yard bomb.
Later in the quarter, a 50-yard pass from Santacaterina to Christian Blake led to a 1-yard scoring run from Marcus Childers.
San Diego State went on an eight-play, 64-yard drive, on which running back Rashaad Penny started to get rolling with a 25-yard carry. However, the Northern Illinois defense bowed up at the 2-yard line to deny the Aztecs a touchdown, resulting in a field goal by John Baron II.
Despite the Northern Illinois defense putting yards at a premium for San Diego State, Penny reached 107 yards rushing. He has eclipsed 100 in every game on the season.
Jordan Huff led Northern Illinois in rushing with 148 yards.
Big plays on special teams and defense buoyed San Diego State through a sluggish offensive first half and a 31-14 lead.
A game-opening touchdown on special teams, a defensive score and a TD pass set up when the San Diego State defense forced a fumble in Huskies’ territory powered the Aztecs before halftime. Their first sustained offensive drive ended with quarterback Christian Chapman hitting tight end Kahale Warring for an 8-yard touchdown pass.
San Diego State was slow to get running back Penny going. Penny, who came in the nation’s No. 2 rusher at 179 yards per game, went into intermission with 39 yards on eight rushes; 23 came on a fourth-down run just before the break, which set up a 38-yard field goal by Baron.
Penny continued his streak of scoring at least one touchdown in every game this season, courtesy of a 33-yard pass from Chapman off a wheel route. The play was reminiscent of a touchdown reception Penny made in the first quarter at Northern Illinois last season.
Northern Illinois — which moved the ball effectively much of the first half and outgained San Diego State 211-159 — got 92 yards rushing from Huff and scored on two long drives. Both culminated with Santacaterina finding Blake for touchdowns.
Northern Illinois mounted a third promising drive, aided by two San Diego State personal foul penalties, before Thompson jumped a route for an 83-yard interception return for a touchdown.
Penny came into the game one kickoff return shy of tying the NCAA career record of eight, but it was teammate Juwan Washington getting in on the action to open Saturday’s game. Washington took the opening kickoff 96 yards to the end zone.
Northern Illinois responded with Huff peeling off more than 12 yards per carry on the Huskies’ opening drive to set up play-action pass. Santacaterina capitalized with the first of two touchdown passes to Blake, this one a 36-yarder with Blake streaking down the sideline in single coverage.
Blake finished the half with 10 receptions for 104 yards.
NOTES: Northern Illinois WR Christian Blake had set a career best by halftime with 104 yards receiving. ... Juwan Washington’s 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown was San Diego State’s eighth since the beginning of the 2015 season, most among all Football Bowl Subdivision program. ... Northern Illinois had not allowed more than 23 points in any of its three previous games. ... The Aztecs were penalized 10 times for 124 yards on Saturday. ... Northern Illinois had not allowed more than 23 points in any of its three previous games. ...Attendance was 35,717.