DeKALB, Ill.--When Northern Illinois running back Keith Hurley was forced out of bounds somewhere near the one-yard line on his two-point conversion attempt with no time left in the game, it began a Cal State Fullerton celebration that, at first, spread very slowly.
It seems that some of the Titans didn't know they had won Saturday's game, 21-20.
Chris Wright, the defender who forced Hurley out of bounds, later told teammates that he kicked the pylon as he was forced out of bounds and didn't know for certain that the Titans had won until he saw his teammates celebrating on the sidelines.
"He was very close," Wright said later. "About a step. I didn't know for sure."
Another confused Titan was Eric Franklin, who had gone inside because he felt ill after being hit hard in the midsection on the drive that ended with his one-yard run to give Fullerton a 21-14 lead with 54 seconds remaining. He heard the news from Ronnie Barber, who shouted play-by-play to him from the doorway.
One bit of play-by-play no one from Fullerton was happy to hear started with one second left when Northern Illinois (3-3-1) scored on a one-yard run by Kent Iwema to cut the Titan lead to 21-20.
The Huskies, who had scored a two-point conversion earlier in the game, shunned the tie and went for the win. The attempt, which started with no time left, failed when Hurley went out of bounds.
"We were half a yard short in one of the best comebacks I've seen in 22 years of coaching," said Northern Illinois Coach Jerry Pettibone. Northern Illinois came back after trailing, 14-3, late in the third quarter to tie, 14-14, with 6:01 remaining.
Fullerton (4-4) had squandered many scoring opportunities. Barber had thrown three interceptions--two in Huskie territory and one in the fourth quarter--and receiver Mark Hill had fumbled at the Huskie 24-yard line in the third quarter.
But faced with necessity, the Titans covered 64 yards in a time-consuming five-minute drive, keyed by a 31-yard run by Todd White on a reverse and culminating in a touchdown on Franklin's 1-yard carry.
Fullerton had a fourth and one on the four-yard line in that drive, but Titan Coach Gene Murphy said later that although it was discussed, there had been "no doubt," about going for the first down instead of a field goal. "Not the way they had been moving the ball on us," Murphy said.
What followed proved the decision right.
The Huskies' 61-yard, 54-second drive was in serious trouble only once--at fourth and eight on the Fullerton 34-yard line with 11 seconds left. Taylor completed an 11-yard pass to Rodney Taylor for the first down, and then passed to Mark Clancy, who caught the ball at the one-yard line before going out of bounds.
Iwema scored on the next play, setting up the two-point attempt, which easily could have turned out differently.
Marshall Taylor, the Huskie quarterback, rolled left and then pitched to Hurley.
"(Taylor) sort of hesitated," said Wright, the defender who forced Hurley out of bounds. "If he pitched initially, it would have been a touchdown, and if he kept it, it would have been a touchdown. I'm just glad he didn't, and it wasn't."
Taylor was not one to hide what he agreed was a mistake.
"When I look back on it, if I could run that play again, I would have kept it," Taylor said. "It's really hard to tell, but during the time I thought about it . . . I feel now I should have kept the ball. I just wish I would have."