Western Illinois sacked Howard quarterback Sandy Nichols 11 times and turned two second-half turnovers into touchdowns as the Leathernecks rallied to defeat the Bison, 22-17, before 1,200 chilled fans yesterday at Howard Stadium.
Western Illinois (2-8) had lost seven straight and Howard (5-5) had won four straight. Leatherneck Coach Pete Rodriguez and his staff turned in their resignations three weeks ago and the team was in danger of losing nine games for the first time in the 79-year history of the school.
But Howard's five turnovers eliminated any chance of that. The Bison wasted two scoring opportunities inside their opponent's 20 in the last period and allowed a fourth-string quarterback to complete several key passes, including a 37-yard touchdown pass in the third period that provided the winning points.
"Turnovers killed us; each one breathed new life into them," Howard Coach Floyd Keith said. "We gave them 21 points. The first half was one of our best and the second was one of our worst."
Howard's failure began late in the second quarter. After Nichols completed a 20-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Watkins for a 17-3 lead with 7:18 left in the quarter, the Bison fell apart.
Western Illinois' defense, led by J.D. Johnson (four sacks), Todd Selke and Pat Bayers, became much more aggressive as the game went on.
After an interception by Howard's Robert Forte stopped a Leatherneck drive at the Bison 32, Nichols was stripped of the ball on a blitz by Tim Townsend and Selke recovered at the Howard 41.
Aided by a pass interference call, the visitors drove 41 yards; Beau Williams scored on a one-yard run 15 seconds before intermission. Mike Fogle's kick cut the deficit to 17-10.
Andrew Kelly fumbled at his 20 on Howard's first play of the third period. But Western Illinois couldn't move.
Howard wasn't as lucky on its next two mistakes. Nichols, who rarely had time to find his receivers, was sacked three times on the next two possessions.
"I don't know what happened (to the offensive line)," said Nichols, who passed for a school record 298 yards (surpassing the mark of 293) on 14 of 30 completions. "I know I feel it. We just didn't do anything in the second half. I guess we thought we were better than they were."
"They made a few adjustments in the second half and ran more traps," linebacker Robert Sellers said. "It was a good move by them."
At the end of the second series, Jon Nicolaisen's short punt into the wind gave Western Illinois the ball at the Howard 34. Seven consecutive running plays up the middle ended with a one-yard touchdown run by Danny Jenkins with 3:21 left in the third period to make it 17-16.
The visitors went for a two-point conversion but Sellers sacked Eric Vandenbergh.
Howard's final mistake came on its very next possession. A pass interference call moved the Bison to the Western Illinois 32, but Melvin Sutton's first-down fumble was recovered by Selke.
Vandenbergh faked inside, straightened up and threw to Jerome Stelly. The extra point attempt failed but Western Illinois was ahead, 22-17, with 1:24 left in the third period.
"We were only going to pass when necessary," said Vandenbergh, who completed seven of 23 for 112 yards in his first start. "We thought we could run on them and that's what we concentrated on. On that pass play, the defender (Charles Taylor) went for the fake draw and Jerome got a step on him."
Howard had more than enough time to win the game. The Bison drove to the visitors' 35, 16 and 13 in the last 10 minutes. But Nichols was sacked twice and threw an interception.
Nichols was sabotaged by one of his lineman on the interception. On a first down on the Western Illinois 16, Nichols tried a quick out pass but guard John Bilberry fell across the quarterback's leg and his pass wobbled into the arms of Western Illinois' Townsend.
The most crucial sack and the final one of the game came on fourth and six at the Western Illinois 13 with just under four minutes to play. Nichols never had a chance as Johnson shoved aside his blocker and ended Howard's hopes.
"They were so concerned with our blitz, we were able to beat them inside," said Johnson, whose four sacks gave him 22 this year. "No one picked us at all."