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Other receiver key to tying, winning TDs

10/5/2003

DEKALB, Ill. (AP) -- With its big-play receiver injured, Northern Illinois found an able replacement in P.J. Fleck.

Fleck caught a tying 15-yard touchdown pass with 1:42 remaining and had another long reception to set up quarterback Josh Haldi's 1-yard score in overtime as Northern Illinois (No. 20 ESPN/USA Today, No. 17 AP) survived a scare to beat Ohio 30-23 Saturday night.

"I can't say enough about this guy sitting right here," coach Joe Novak said of Fleck. "I think Josh and P.J., you guys were drawing some of those plays up in the sand."

It was a career day for Fleck, and it was desperately needed by Northern Illinois (5-0, 1-0 Mid-American Conference).

The Huskies lost their best deep threat early in the game when receiver Dan Sheldon dislocated his elbow. Sheldon is likely out for the season, Novak said.

Fleck certainly picked up the slack. He had 14 catches for a school-record 234 yards, including the two big plays that helped the Huskies remain unbeaten. He accounted for more than two-thirds of Northern Illinois' offense.

"When Sheldon went down, that was a huge loss," said 5-foot-11 Fleck, typically a possession receiver. "I wasn't supposed to get open deep. I was running the short routes like I'm supposed to, and (Haldi) started scrambling. I just tried to get open."

After Haldi's score on the first overtime possession, Northern Illinois stopped Ohio (1-4, 0-2) on four straight plays to seal the win. The game ended on Kursten Strothman's sack as the Huskies swarmed the field in celebration.

It wasn't the type of close ending they expected.

After his Huskies beat three teams from BCS conferences to open the season, Northern Illinois coach Joe Novak was worried about a letdown in the conference opener against the Bobcats, whose only win was a 17-3 victory over Division I-AA Southeast Missouri State.

It nearly happened until Fleck came through at the end.

"Right now, I think we have a bit of a target on our backs, no question. We have to understand that," Novak said.

On fourth-and-4 with the Huskies trailing 23-16, Fleck beat his defender in the left side of the end zone and just barely dragged his right foot in bounds. He had five receptions for 52 yards during the drive, which covered 80 yards in 12 plays.

"I just threw it up where I didn't think the defensive back could get to it. P.J. made a heck of a catch," Haldi said.

Ohio had taken the seven-point lead with 10:55 to go on a 3-yard run by Ray Huston. The score was set up by a 27-yard pass from Ryan Hawk to Adam Porter, and the defense nearly made it stick.

Haldi finished 26-of-46 for 310 yards with one touchdown rushing and two passing.

The Huskies took a 16-13 lead early in the second half when Haldi rolled out to his right and found Fleck open along the sideline for a 42-yard gain to the 6. The Huskies scored on the next play when Haldi faked a throw to his left and hit tight end Brad Cieslak for a touchdown.

On Ohio's next possession, the Bobcats were stopped at midfield and faced fourth-and-6 when coach Knorr called for a fake punt. It worked perfectly. Punter Matthew Miller took the snap and ran around the left end for a 14-yard gain and a first down, setting up Greg DiMarino's game-tying 40-yard field goal.

"We do a lot of different things in our punting game. It was something we felt like we had all game," Ohio coach Brian Knorr said.

Ohio scored on its opening drive when Chris Jackson sidestepped a pair of defenders and went up the middle for a 17-yard touchdown run, the first of his career. DiMarino's extra-point attempt was wide right -- his third miss in 11 tries this season.

The touchdown capped a 13-play, 81-yard drive. But it proved costly for the Bobcats.

Ohio lost quarterback Fred Ray when he was driven into the turf after an 11-yard gain. Ray, the team's leading rusher at 78 yards a game, left with a sprained right shoulder and didn't return.

Ray was replaced by Hawk, and Ohio didn't miss a beat.

Hawk threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to Anthony Hackett to give the Bobcats a 13-6 lead. Hawk avoided the rush on the scoring play, scrambled to his right and hit a Hackett across the middle for the score.

Northern Illinois kicker Steve Azar had field goals of 38, 47 and 29 yards to pull the Huskies to 13-9 at halftime.

The seldom-used Jackson finished with 82 yards on 19 carries. He entered the game with three carries for 7 yards.