No. 19 San Diego State holds off Northern Illinois
SAN DIEGO — Running back Rashaad Penny has carried San Diego State to national prominence this season, but it was the defense that kept it relevant on the big stage Saturday.
Back-to-back interceptions by Tariq Thompson and Kameron Kelly denied Northern Illinois’ upset bid as the No. 19 Aztecs survived a sluggish offensive performance to prevail 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 pick on the Huskies’ last-gasp effort.
The win preserved the Aztecs’ best start since 1975, when San Diego State won eight straight.
Penny, who came in as the nation’s No. 2 rusher at 179 yards per game, was held to 107 on 25 carries.
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.
The chippiness that produced so many flags included a moment San Diego State running back Rashaad Penny said, “shouldn’t be in a college football game.”
Northern Illinois linebacker Antonio Jones-Davis poked Penny’s eyes during a dogpile in the first half, prompting San Diego State equipment managers to place a visor on the running back’s helmet.
“I couldn’t see out of my right eye,” Penny said. “I thought I was going blind.”
Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey said Jones-Davis admitted to it. The coach plans to evaluate once “emotions (die) down.”
Emotions did not relent during the game, however, evident both in the multitude of penalties and the back-and-forth nature of the contest.
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.
“Deep balls were there all game,” Tears said. “The (cornerbacks) played off and Cover-2 a lot. With the speed we’ve got at receiver, we can run past the (defensive backs) every time.”
Later in the quarter, a 50-yard pass from Santacaterina to Christian Blake led to a 1-yard scoring run from Marcus Childers.
“There’s a lot of the teams in the country that, in those situations, will wilt, give up. We’re not like that,” Long said. “Our team has a really good spirit.”
The Aztecs also made adjustments, limiting Northern Illinois’ long passes after those two third-quarter scoring drives by keeping a safety back to help the cornerbacks in coverage. But while the defense adjusted, the offense was unable to capitalize.
San Diego State went on an eight-play, 64-yard drive, on which 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.
Jordan Huff led Northern Illinois in rushing with 148 yards.
“I thought Northern Illinois outplayed us,” San Diego State coach Rocky Long said. “The difference was we made big plays, made big turnovers. That’s the only thing that saved the game. Momentum swings with turnovers.”
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.
Penny 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.
“For a freshman safety, those are unbelievable interceptions,” Long said of Thompson’s two picks.
Penny came into the game one kickoff return for a touchdown 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.
NOTES: The win was San Diego State’s first home victory as a nationally ranked team since 1975. ... 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 FBS programs. ... Northern Illinois had not allowed more than 23 points in any of its three previous games. ... The Aztecs were penalized 10 times for 126 yards. ... San Diego State improved to 21-2 when Rashaad Penny scores a touchdown. ... Attendance was 35,717.