As a Northern Illinois senior, Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck helped play a big role in upset of Maryland

The football game between Maryland and Minnesota on Saturday in Minneapolis will certainly bring back memories for first-year Gophers coach P.J. Fleck.

As a senior at Northern Illinois in 2003, Fleck played a major role in his team’s 20-13 season-opening overtime victory against the 15th-ranked Terps in DeKalb.

"We expected to win this game, we came in thinking we were going to win, and we did," Fleck, who caught 13 passes for 116 yards and a touchdown, said afterward.

Said Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen at the time: "I knew this would be a close game. I knew that all summer. So I'm not surprised with how the game went. They're a very good football team.”

Fueled by the emotion of honoring the memory of Shea Fitzgerald, an offensive tackle who was among 13 people who had died over the summer after a multilevel deck collapsed in Chicago, and buoyed by a raucous, school-record crowd of over 28,000 at Huskies Stadium, Northern Illinois outplayed Maryland in all phases of the game.

With the Terps geared to stop Michael “The Burner” Turner, Northern Illinois’ star running back who had finished second among Division I rushers the previous year, quarterback Josh Haldi completed 21 of 35 passes for 266 yards and two touchdowns, a 5-yarder to Fleck right before halftime and the other a 20-yarder to wide receiver Dan Sheldon for the game-winner.

Though Turner was held to 90 yards on 30 carries, he picked up 38 of them on an 18-play, 84-yard drive that ended with a 25-yard tying field goal with 1:12 remaining.

"That last drive before the field goal, [Turner] was really taking it to our defense," Friedgen said.

The Huskies later had a 45-yard field-goal attempt blocked by the Terps at the end of regulation. In the overtime, an underthrown pass by Maryland quarterback Scott McBrien was deflected and intercepted in the end zone.

The Terps were outgained 325 to 222. Maryland also committed nine penalties for 90 yards, including two on the long drive in regulation that ended in the field goal.

"They did everything we expected them to do, and they did it very well," McBrien, who finished just 12 of 24 for 110 yards and an interception, said after the game. "I guess they wanted it. They came in and played like they deserved the victory. We made some foolish plays."

Said Fleck: "This is eight years in the making for [the coaching staff]. I couldn't be happier. I'd say this is the biggest team victory I've ever been a part of."

Longtime coach Joe Novak, whose first two teams at Northern Illinois had gone a combined 1-21, seemed at a loss after the win.

"Could somebody tell me what happened?" said Novak, whose team would finish 10-2 that season. "All I know is everyone said we won, so I was going to go along with it."

During the Big Ten coaches’ teleconference Tuesday, the now-37-year-old Fleck still has the image of one of his teammates kicking the game ball high into the air after McBrien’s pass was intercepted and of Novak celebrating the victory.

“With his fists clamped and putting them above his head, like, ‘We did it, we took one of the worst programs in the country and beat a top-10 team at the time like Maryland,” Fleck said. “That’s a very special moment. What Joe Novak had done was something a lot of people could never have done. Those are the things that excite me, things that have never been done before.”

don.markus@baltsun.com

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