Bowers throws two touchdowns in Huskies victory to open Hammock Era

By James Krause

DeKALB — The era of NIU football under Head Coach Thomas Hammock started Saturday with a 24-10 victory over Illinois State University.

Doused in a Gatorade bath by his players after the game, Hammock said he’s proud of his team’s performance through rain showers and the emotional pressure of the season opener.

“We trained all summer for these moments and these elements,” Hammock said. “I thought our team did a great job not flinching. [The players] handled the moment.”

The Huskies won behind a pair of passing touchdowns from senior quarterback Ross Bowers to junior wide receiver Tyrice Richie, including a 68-yard go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter.

Bowers finished with 299 yards and got the start over redshirt junior quarterback Marcus Childers. Bowers said he eventually got comfortable being back on the field after being sidelined last year at California with a thumb injury.

“[Playing] felt pretty comfortable,” Bowers said. “To get some early completions, some big plays, the running game was really popping, it made my job so much easier and I thought [Hammock] really helped me along.”

Finishing with three catches for 102 yards, Richie said an explosive second half from the offense came after a message to the team from the coaching staff.

“We came out and stayed true to what we know and what we work for every day in practice,” Richie said. “Coaches said we needed to practice the way we played, and we did.”

NIU’s frontline of defense kept Redbirds senior running back James Robinson in check, limiting him to 16 yards on 13 carries. Hammock said the goal of NIU’s defensive attack was to take away Illinois State’s running ability.

“We wanted to make them one dimensional,” Hammock said. “Our linebackers stopped the run. They stop us every day in practice, so I expected today to be more of the same.”

First-year defensive back Mark Aitken and redshirt senior linebacker Kyle Pugh both boasted team-highs of five tackles. Sophomore linebacker Jordan Cole, filling in for an injured starter senior Lance Devauex, finished with three tackles in his second career start.

The first offensive drive of the newly-led Huskies was one to forget. Bowers was sacked on the opening play and saw a completion turned over by an illegal blocking penalty to force a punt.

The tight end position became a popular target for Bowers. Junior tight end Mitchell Brinkman led the team with four receptions while redshirt senior tight end Daniel Crawford finished with a career-high 75 receiving yards.

Crawford put NIU inside the ISU redzone for the first time with a catch and ran for 45 yards. Redshirt first-year kicker Josh Richardson finished the drive with a 25-yard field goal to make it 3-0 with 4:19 left in the first quarter.

The Redbirds first scoring drive was spearheaded by a tipped pass turned interception by junior linebacker Dylan Draka. Senior kicker Sam Fenlason converted on a 32-yard field goal to tie the game 3-3 with 2:25 remaining in the half.

Bowers and the Huskies offense were able to set up a 36-yard attempt for Richardson before halftime. The Redbirds froze the kicker by using all three of their timeouts, forcing a miss to keep the score tied at halftime.

The offense struggled out of the locker room, with Bowers getting sacked on back-to-back plays. Even after a fumble recovery on a punt, the Huskies failed to convert on fourth down, deep in ISU territory.

After both teams traded punts, catches by Crawford and Brinkman set up the first of two touchdown catches for Richie. A 22-yard catch in the endzone gave NIU a 10-3 lead.

To start the fourth quarter, a 19-yard pass from Davis gave ISU its first and only third down conversion in 14 attempts. Davis found sophomore wide receiver Taylor Grimes on the next play for a 42-yard touchdown pass to make it 10-10.

Hammock and his Huskies offense didn’t waste time taking back the lead. On a short pass from Bowers, Richie escaped a tackle and outran the Redbirds for a 68-yard touchdown on the opening play of the drive to make it 17-10.

The Redbirds, despite starting the drive at their own one-yard line, reached midfield and attempted to keep their drive alive with a fourth down conversion. With 3:04 remaining, redshirt senior defensive end Quintin Wynne came up with NIU’s only sack of the night to force a turnover on downs.

Davis threw an interception to redshirt sophomore Jalen McKie on the first play of ISU’s next drive, which McKie returned for a 32-yard touchdown. The touchdown, with 2:31 remaining, made for the 24-10 final score.

NIU won’t host another game at Huskie Stadium until October, starting a three-game road stretch next week. The first road game will be against the 14th-ranked University of Utah Utes.

Kick off is set for noon Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City.