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Published: Sunday, 10/18/2009

Rockets edge NIU

BY ZACH SILKA
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Add another bizarre chapter to the wacky first season under University of Toledo coach Tim Beckman.

In a year that's seen more twists and turns than you'd experience on any ride at Cedar Point, the Rockets managed to pull out a significant 20-19 win over Northern Illinois last night at the Glass Bowl in front 17,012 to keep themselves in contention in the Mid-American Conference West Division.

If there is such a thing as a must-win game in October, this was it.

Following a lackluster season-opening loss at Purdue, a thrilling rout of Colorado, a shellacking from Ohio State, an impressive win at Florida International, a dramatic comeback victory at Ball State and a crushing homecoming defeat to Western Michigan, the Rockets (4-3, 2-1) had plenty to prove last night against a tough MAC West foe.

"Wow," UT coach Tim Beckman said. "Those last two victories have been down to the last minute. I can't say enough about our seniors and what a

great job they do leading us and fighting back from last week. It's just an exciting time down there."

With four-year starter Aaron Opelt still ailing from a bruised right shoulder, UT was forced to turn to freshman Austin Dantin, a 6-foot-2, 185-pound native of Tallahassee.

Although he was intercepted once - resulting in NIU's late go-ahead touchdown - and fumbled four times - two of which were recovered by the Huskies and stunted drives deep in opposing territory - Dantin also showed flashes of brilliance. His 26-yard touchdown pass to receiver Tim Cortazzo with 6:28 left in the first half capped a nine-play, 99-yard scoring drive and gave UT a 14-0 advantage.

"He played well," Cortazzo said of Dantin. "I mean, what can you expect from a freshman quarterback? He played gutsy and he did all that he could to get us in a situation to win."

But with 10:56 remaining in the contest, Dantin suffered an apparent right ankle injury after he was hit while completing a 29-yard pass to receiver Stephen Williams. Dantin immediately crumbled to the turf in pain and did not return after limping off the field with assistance from trainers.

In came junior Alex Pettee and with the game on the line, he delivered. He completed a crucial 21-yard pass along the right sideline to Eric Page, and senior running back DaJuane Collins capped off the drive with a 4-yard run to give UT a 20-19 lead with 7:05 left.

UT's defense, which has been up and down all year, was up this time and kept the Huskies at bay.

NIU advanced the ball to the UT 25-yard line before attempting a 42-yard field goal with 40 seconds left, but Mike Salerno's kick was blocked by UT senior safety Barry Church - his second blocked kick of the game.

"Coach Beckman always tells us that special teams is one of the biggest factors in the game," Church said. "I have to give all props to Maurice Hill. He was the defensive tackle in front of me, and his job is to make sure the guard next to the center doesn't touch me. He did that both times, so if it wasn't for him, I wouldn't have been able to block it."

The game-deciding block put the finishing touches on an impressive day for the UT defense, which held the MAC's top rushing attack to 164 yards, well below the Huskies' season average.

Me'co Brown was NIU's leading rusher with 94 yards on 22 carries, including a 1-yard run with 1:27 to go before halftime that cut UT's lead to 14-6.

Quarterback Chandler Harnish added 42 yards on the ground and a pair of 1-yard TD runs in the second half - the second of which gave NIU a 19-14 advantage with 13:44 to play following Dantin's interception.

Dantin completed 17 of 24 passes for 202 yards. Pettee finished 2-of-2 passing for 28 yards, and both were aided by a solid ground game and a consistent target in the passing attack.

Collins rushed for 139 yards on 16 carries, including a 17-yard TD run that gave UT a 7-0 lead with 44 seconds left in the first quarter.

"We knew we would have to run the ball because we had a freshman quarterback coming in there," Collins said.

Freshman wideout Eric Page aided in that effort as well, catching 10 passes for 127 yards.

"Page is an amazing guy," Pettee said. "He's a little guy but he's so quick. I don't know how he does it. But it's not just Collins and Page. It was a team effort to win this game and I think that was the awesome part of it."

Contact Zach Silka

at: zsilka@theblade.com.



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