Northern Illinois provides challenge to No. 19 San Diego State

SAN DIEGO — Northern Illinois head coach Rod Carey remembers the play well, citing it first when listing the challenges his Huskies face defending 19th-ranked San Diego State on Saturday at SDCCU Stadium in San Diego.

Late in the first quarter a season ago, San Diego State running back Rashaad Penny broke down the right sideline, well past the Northern Illinois coverage, and quarterback Christian Chapman hit him in stride for a 28-yard touchdown pass.

Executing a wheel route any more perfectly would be tough duty. A repeat Saturday night seems unlikely, based on Penny’s assessment of its use a season ago in DeKalb, Illinois.

“That was a special play,” he said.

But given how San Diego State (4-0) ranks No. 5 nationally in rushing plays of 20-plus yards — and three of Chapman’s five touchdown passes are from 21 yards or more — Northern Illinois (2-1) needs to be ready for a different selection of big plays.

Penny said the entire process of mapping out and executing explosive plays is a central part of the San Diego State offense.

“Coaches calling the right plays in the right situations (based on) formations, where we are on the field,” he said. “The coaches do a great job drawing them up on Sundays so we can run them in practice then call them in the games.”

Long-yardage plays fueled San Diego State its last time out, in a 28-24 road win against Mountain West Conference counterpart Air Force.

The Aztecs fell behind in the second quarter 9-0, unable to mount much offense due to wind gusts and torrential rain. San Diego State returned to the field after a 90-minute lightning delay and, on its first play from scrimmage, Chapman tossed a 42-yard completion to tight end Kahale Warring.

“I thought we were going to be all right when we came out at halftime, and the weather was good, because that allowed us to use play-action pass,” said San Diego State head coach Rocky Long. “Which we did the first play after the break. Play-action pass allows us to run the ball better.”

Chapman completed another long throw set up off play-action, finding tight end David Wells for a 28-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter.

And, indeed, the threat of an accurate passing attack opened the field for Penny. He rushed for 2.9 yards per carry before the delay, and 9.9 following it.

“After the weather delay, San Diego State came out, and I thought, did a great job of handling some adversity,” Carey said.

Fittingly, the game-winning score came on another explosive play: Penny’s 53-yard touchdown run. It was his third score of the game, helping him earn Mountain West Offensive Player of the Week honors for a fourth consecutive time in 2017.

“I have teammates that say I can win it 12 straight weeks, and I laugh about it. I wasn’t expecting this,” Penny said.

For Penny to make it a fifth straight, the nation’s No. 2 rusher (179.0 yards per game) will have to find new ways to make explosive plays against a stout Northern Illinois defense.

Northern Illinois is coming off a bye that followed its 21-17 road win against Nebraska on Sept. 16. And the Huskies have proved to be adept at limiting big-yardage plays through three games. They rank No. 8 in runs of 10 or more yards allowed, with just nine. They have surrendered just two rushes of 20-plus yards, and none of 30 or more.

Northern Illinois’ first three opponents — Boston College, Eastern Illinois and Nebraska — averaged 2.96, 1.33 and 2.36 yards per carry against the Huskies.

Much in the same manner that San Diego State’s ability to run feeds its pass — and vice versa — Northern Illinois thrives defensively, turning its stinginess against the rush into turnover opportunities via the pass.

The Huskies have six interceptions through three games. Cornerback Shawun Lurry proved he can be one of the best cover men in the nation, intercepting nine passes in 2015. But the distribution of takeaways this year is spread among six players, one of whom is linebacker Jawuan Johnson.

Johnson earned Mid-American Conference West Division Defensive Player of the Week following the Nebraska win, racking up nine tackles, a tackle for loss, and returning an interception for a touchdown.

Long said Northern Illinois comes in “fresh, healthy, and with a lot of confidence.”

“The rest was needed,” Carey said of the bye week. “As far as getting bumps and bruises healed up, they took advantage.”

The Huskies could have also used the bye week to prepare for Penny breaking off another one of those “special” plays.