Views: Gutsy call pays off
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – The scariest moment didn't occur when the ball found itself in Justin Anderson's hands.
It didn't occur when special teams coordinator Jay Sawvel suggested Northern Illinois could run a successful fake punt on fourth-and-2 on NIU's own 16-yard line while nursing a seven-point lead late in the fourth quarter on the road against Purdue.
The scariest moment, the one that set everyone but one person with NIU on edge, came when they realized it would work.
"You really don't get nervous on it until they line up and you see 'Oh, [wow] we got the look we want.' That's when you get nervous on the whole thing," said NIU defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, who was in on the fake punt discussion with Sawvel and Jerry Kill.
Strangely, the coolest person on the field was Anderson, the one with the most responsibility and the one in charge of the play once everyone lined up on that fourth down.
"I'm like Denzel Washington, you know," Anderson said. "I'm a good actor."
To be clear, this wasn't an all-in gamble by the NIU coaching staff or Anderson in an epic 11-yard, first-down run in the Huskies' eventual 28-21 victory at Purdue. It wasn't crazy, half-baked or foolish. Seriously.
Gutsy? No doubt about it. You can probably count on one hand the coaching staffs that give the OK to that particular call in that particular situation.
"Well, a lot of times you get fired for those things," Kill said.
But this was something different.
It was a master's course in gumption and execution on a play the Huskies practiced for two weeks before Saturday's victory.
"We were fortunate enough to get what we needed," Kill said, "and Justin made a good call."
Purdue lined up in the exact same punt return formation they had all game, tipping off the NIU coaches. Anderson's responsibility in that situation is to make the call. NIU still had the option to punt it away, even after the coaches gave the go-ahead to run the fake.
It was all on Anderson, who was thinking about a lot more than a first down once he saw a familiar formation from the Boilermakers.
"I was like 'I'm about to score,' to be honest," Anderson said. "Fourth-and-whatever, I'm trying to score."
He didn't score, but he did clinch the game for the Huskies.
"To be honest, I'm thankful for the opportunity," Anderson said. "I've been on the punt team for a couple of weeks now. It's something new. I'm thankful for coach Sawvel putting [the fake] in."
Anderson's diminished role from starter to backup in the past year has been debated about ad nauseum. It hasn't been easy on the senior running back, who has never complained publicly and consistently has played the role of a good soldier.
"Any player would rather do more," he said. "Me and coach Kill, we've bumped heads about it. But I know my role and I'm going to play my role. Whenever they call on me, if they call on me, I'm ready. But I'm a team player. I'm all for my guys. I'm not jealous."
So how great was it to see Anderson make the type of play he did on Saturday?
The coaching staff trusted Anderson to take the ball in his hands and win the game. The second half of Anderson's college career hasn't gone as he expected, but Saturday he permanently marched himself into NIU lore with the biggest run of his career.
• John Sahly is a sports reporter for the Daily Chronicle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org