Defense needs to gain experience with several first-year starters

NIU+redshirt+senior+Lance+Deveaux+Jr.+%28left%29+chases+Buffalo+redshirt+first-year+wide+receiver+Trevor+Wilson+Nov.+4%2C+during+NIU%27s+49-30+loss+to+the+University+at+Buffalo+Bulls+at+Huskie+Stadium.

Patrick Murphy | Northern Star

NIU redshirt senior Lance Deveaux Jr. (left) chases Buffalo redshirt first-year wide receiver Trevor Wilson Nov. 4, during NIU’s 49-30 loss to the University at Buffalo Bulls at Huskie Stadium.

Mike Knapp, Columnist

Football is finally here, but Northern Illinois will have to wait until Wednesday to pick up their first win of 2020.

With almost half of the roster made up of new faces, it would’ve helped the Huskies to have had an easy win to knock off the rust and build some confidence. If the football season hadn’t been delayed by COVID-19, NIU would’ve had that opportunity against the University of Maine, a team from the lower Football Championship Subdivision.

Instead, the Huskies were matched up with the University at Buffalo as the two teams opened the season in what will be a six-game sprint to the finish in the Mid-American Conference. Buffalo, as in the consensus choice to win not only the Eastern Division but the Mid-American Conference championship as well.

All-in-all, the Huskies held their own, but the Bulls used a 21-point spurt in two minutes in the third quarter to turn a 21-16 advantage at the break into a 49-30 win.

When the coaching staff goes to look at tape of this game, they will find lots to work on, but lots to build on too. The most glaring item will be cleaning up an offense that turned the ball over five times, three of which were returned by the Bulls for scores.

With their youth, this team will be operating on a high wire this season, and just can’t win a game when they give the ball away five times.

“Obviously we can’t spot a team like that 21 points,” NIU Head Coach Thomas Hammock said. “We can’t turn the ball over, we have to play clean football to give ourselves an opportunity to win.

“We have to have attention to detail on every single snap. The thing we talked about is if a bad play happens, we have to flush it and move on. What we saw was a snowball effect in the third quarter that we have to avoid.”

Defensively, the Huskies need to grow up — and fast. While veterans like sophomore linebacker Nick Rittin, who had a team-high 10 tackles, picked up where they left off from last season, the defensive unit started five first-year players, and it showed as junior running back Jaret Patterson rushed for a game-high 137 yards and two scores, and junior quarterback Kyle Vantrease completed 11 of his 17 passes for 175 yards and a touchdown.

One area that shows a lot of promise is on offense. While he had two turnovers that were returned for touchdowns, redshirt senior quarterback Ross Bowers threw for 202 yards and a score and looked much more comfortable than he did in an injury-plagued 2019.

Senior wide receiver Tyrice Ritchie posted career-highs with nine catches and 106 yards, and first-year wideout Trayvon Rudolph had 56 yards receiving and averaged 30.2 yards on five kickoff returns.

What has to excite Hammock is the play of running backs Erin Collins and Harrison Waylee, who were both playing their first games in a Huskie uniform. Collins, a junior who transferred in from Hutchinson Junior College in Kansas, had 49 tough yards on 16 carries, while Waylee, a first-year player came on and finished the night with 70 yards on 13 carries. 

That played a big part in the Huskies holding a 37:11-22:49 advantage in time of possession, and getting the ground game going will be huge, as weather will at some point become a factor.

Losing to Buffalo wasn’t unexpected, and it doesn’t hurt the Huskies that badly as the Bulls are in the Eastern Division. That changes next week when the Huskies host Central Michigan University and begin a run to the rest of the season in its own division. 

Every game is crucial from here on out, and Hammock expects to see a different team on the field against the Chippewas next week. He believes teams always improve the most between the first and second games of the season, so he expects a much better team to take the field next week.

Wednesday’s game will start at 7 p.m. CST and will be shown nationally on ESPNU.