Football team prepares to host defending West Division champions

Redshirt+first-year+tailback+Rondarius+Gregory+escapes+defenders+Nov.+11%2C+as+he+runs+down+the+sideline+during+NIU%27s+49-30+loss+to+the+University+at+Buffalo+Bulls+at+Huskie+Stadium.

Patrick Murphy | Associated Press

Redshirt first-year tailback Rondarius Gregory escapes defenders Nov. 11, as he runs down the sideline during NIU’s 49-30 loss to the University at Buffalo Bulls at Huskie Stadium.

James Krause, Senior Reporter

DeKALB — The football team looks to make up for a self-inflicted loss last week with an upset win against the defending division champion Central Michigan University Chippewas on Wednesday.

The Mid-American Conference West Division champions from 2019 are favored to win the division again in the Preseason MAC Media Poll. NIU hung with the East Division favorites, the University at Buffalo Bulls, until five second-half turnovers dug them a hole that set up a 49-30 loss.

At the team’s weekly news conference Friday, Head Coach Thomas Hammock said the team would harp on fixing those errors in practice ahead of another tough opponent in the Chippewas.

“We’re going to go back to the practice field and make sure we address the things that hurt us in that game,” Hammock said. “Obviously, ball security will be a big part of that and just some little mistakes here and there that we can’t afford to have.”

Despite the turnovers, the Huskies came out of the loss with optimism for the year ahead. Redshirt senior center Brayden Patton said once turnovers were addressed, the offense could be effective.

“Obviously the turnovers are something we need to fix,” Patton said. “That’s all of us, top to bottom. I feel without those turnovers, we were moving the ball pretty well on them. I feel like we’re a physical offense and we have players who have some explosive plays on them.”

The Huskies’ performance late against the Bulls may be indicative of that. Redshirt senior quarterback Andrew Hadiet and redshirt sophomore quarterback Rodney Thompson both led touchdown drives in the fourth quarter after redshirt senior quarterback Ross Bowers was benched.

Hammock said what inspires hope in him is the effort NIU showed even when down by multiple scores late in the game.

“I liked the response by our young men,” Hammock said. “They didn’t go in the tank. They made some mistakes that hurt us but they continued to play and continued to fight.” 

When CMU and NIU met last season, the Chippewas jumped to a 21-3 lead at the end of the first quarter on their way to a blowout victory in Mount Pleasant. Junior running back Kobe Lewis ran for 143 yards and a touchdown as part of a 1,000-yard season.

Lewis returns this season playing alongside redshirt first-year quarterback Daniel Richardson. In his first career start last week, Richardson went 21-for-43 and scored a touchdown against the Ohio University Bobcats.

Hammock said the key to success this week is the same as it was against Buffalo. It starts at the line of scrimmage with their defensive lineman.

“It has to start up front and it has to start with the defensive line,” Hammock said. “We have to control the line of scrimmage and I think that’ll be a big part of the things we’re looking to do. If we control the line of scrimmage, I think we can start there. That gives our linebackers and backends a chance to be able to make some plays.”

The Huskies were unable to pick up a sack against Buffalo, which redshirt senior defensive tackle Weston Kramer attributed to the quick passing attack of the Bulls. Kramer said his group needs to get to the quarterback any chance they can.

“Last week, we didn’t have many opportunities,” Kramer said. “It was those short play action passes that we weren’t able to get to home. On the drop back passes, if we have a chance to get to the quarterback, we have to.

Kramer will be lined up alongside the only new starter from opening week, first-year defensive lineman James Ester who had four tackles last week.

Hammock used Ester’s efforts as a reason to get young players opportunities to play in the shortened season. Seven first-year players started last week for NIU, including wide receiver Trayvon Rudolph who netted 151 kickoff return yards and 56 receiving yards.

“I think we have some young men who played good football,” Hammock said. “James Ester is one that played great football. Weston Kramer obviously played his butt off and we’re going to put Ester next to him and let those two guys battle.” 

CMU is NIU’s most common opponent in program history, meeting 56 times with the Chippewas leading the series 30-24-1.

Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday at Huskie Stadium. Only family of players and coaches will be admitted into the stadium, but fans can watch the game live on ESPNU.