NIU Football looks to dish WMU its first loss

NIU+redshirt+senior+quarterback+Ross+Bowers+looks+for+an+open+receiver+Nov.+11+during+NIU%27s+40-10+loss+to+Central+Michigan+University+at+Huskie+Stadium+in+DeKalb.+

Mikey Escobar | Northern Star

NIU redshirt senior quarterback Ross Bowers looks for an open receiver Nov. 11 during NIU’s 40-10 loss to Central Michigan University at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb.

James Krause, Senior Reporter

DeKALB —  The football team looks to play spoiler to the Western Michigan University Broncos by handing them their first loss of the season when they meet Saturday in Kalamazoo, Michigan. 

The 0-3 Huskies came up just short of their first win of the season last Wednesday against the Ball State University Cardinals, with their offense making massive strides. The Huskies found the endzone three times and had season highs in passing yards and total yards.

Head Coach Thomas Hammock said he’s happy with the improvements the team has made at the halfway point of the six-game season.

“I thought we showed some progress during that game,” Hammock said. “We have to continue to play cleaner and continue to limit turnovers, especially those turnovers that turn into points.”

Redshirt senior wide receiver Tyrice Richie and first-year receiver Trayvon Rudolph have stood out for NIU through three games. 

Richie has 27 receptions and 284 yards, averaging a MAC-leading nine catches a game. Rudolph, a receiver and lead kick returner, leads the nation in total purpose yards per game by a first-year with an average of 166.3.

NIU has had 10 days to prepare for the Broncos with the Mid-American Conference transitioning from mid-week to Saturday games. Hammock said the focus of his coaching staff during the extended preparation is trying to get the ball to playmakers.

“We’ve got to keep finding ways to get our playmakers the ball and find any chance to get them in a one-on-one situation,” Hammock said. “Last week, we started doing that more. I think we have certain plays we want to call to make sure we get the ball in those guys’ hands.”

The main blemish on NIU’s offensive play was a second quarter interception thrown by redshirt senior quarterback Ross Bowers that was returned for a touchdown. It was ultimately the deciding factor in a 31-25 loss.

Rudolph said the offense isn’t where it needs to be yet, but keeping turnovers down is a promising sign.

“We’re not great, but we’re learning,” Rudolph said. “We’re going to keep getting better. We’re eliminating turnovers. Last week we only had one. As soon as we eliminate the turnovers, we’ll be good.”

The undefeated Broncos have taken sole possession of first in the West Division thanks to a versatile and prolific offensive attack. WMU averages 50.3 points and 516 yards a game, both second in the MAC.

“Western Michigan is a very good football team,” Hammock said. “They have guys who can make plays and change the game. We need to make sure we’re very sound in everything we do in all three phases.”

WMU sophomore quarterback Kaleb Eleby leads the MAC in passing with 928 yards and 11 touchdowns while his teammate, senior wide receiver D’Wayne Eskridge, leads the conference in receiving with 457 yards.

NIU first-year safety Devin Lafayette said the defense has taken note of the Broncos’ explosiveness and has a gameplan to keep Eleby from finding his targets easily. 

“We honestly just have to minimize him throwing to his receivers for explosive plays,” Lafayette said. “Their receiving core is returning so [Eleby] still has his key targets. We want to limit him from getting his quick throws that can turn into big plays.”

The task will be made even tougher by redshirt senior linebacker Kyle Pugh missing the first half due to a suspension he received following a targeting ejection against Ball State. Pugh leads the team in tackles with 25.

Starting in his place will be first-year linebacker Eddie Jackson, who Hammock said impressed him in training camp and his limited playing time.

“Jackson is a young man we feel good about,” Hammock said. “He had a good camp and has been playing well. We have all the confidence in the world in him and what he’s going to bring to the table.”

The Huskies window of opportunity for an upset could open significantly if they can find ways to score against a WMU defense that allows an average of 31.7 points per game, the worst of any NIU opponent so far this season.

Rudolph said this game gives NIU a great opportunity to finally take chances with long passes and fight fire with fire.

“Personally, I just think we have to go for the long, open shots they give us,” Rudolph said. “We find those little openings and take advantage of it.”

NIU is no stranger to bringing rain on WMU’s parade. The Huskies beat the Broncos last season in DeKalb to eliminate WMU from contention for the MAC title.

Kickoff for the game is scheduled for 11 a.m. CST Saturday at Waldo Stadium in Kalamazoo. The broadcast will be available on ESPN+.